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updated 5/17/2010 6:43:34 PM ET 2010-05-17T22:43:34

A group of U.S. airlines filed a lawsuit Monday to stop the Obama administration from enforcing a new rule making it easier for unions to organize workers at airlines and railroads.

The Air Transport Association — the industry's main trade group — claims the rule violates federal law and reverses a decades-old system that kept labor disputes from hindering commerce.

"This new rule turns 75 years of history on its head without compelling justification," the association said in a written statement.

The rule approved last week by the National Mediation Board would recognize a union if a simple majority of workers who cast ballots decide to unionize. The old rule required a majority of the entire work force to favor unionizing. That meant workers who didn't vote were counted as "no" votes.

Unions expect the rule change to help organize thousands of flight attendants, baggage handlers and gate agents at Delta Air Lines Inc., and a host of other smaller carriers.

Advocates of the rule change say it is more consistent with democratic elections, where the outcome is decided by a majority of those who vote. The new system would be similar to union representation procedures already followed by most other companies.

The ATA is seeking a federal injunction to prevent the new rule from taking effect on June 10.

Several major carriers who belong to the ATA notably declined to join the lawsuit, including American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and US Airways. Those carriers are already mostly unionized.

Robert Siegel, an attorney for the airline association, said the National Mediation Board had rejected changing the rule on four previous occasions over the last three decades. The Supreme Court has twice upheld the right of the board to keep the old rule.

The lawsuit argues that nothing has changed since those previous decisions, other than President Barack Obama appointing Linda Puchala — the former head of a flight attendant union — to a seat on the three-member board, shifting the balance of power.

Siegel said the board "acted with a predetermined mind" shortly after the AFL-CIO pushed for the change. The lawsuit claims the board's decision coincided with efforts to organize workers at Delta.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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