August 17, 2022

On Thursday, a former Southwest Airlines flight attendant won a $5.3 million jury verdict against the airline and union, after she was fired for her use of social media to express her anti-abortion stance.

Charlene Carter worked as a Southwest Airlines flight attendant for more than 20 years, from 1996 until 2017. Carter was fired from the airline in March 2017, on the basis of violating the company’s policies on bullying and the use of social media.

This issue arose over Carter’s disagreement with the Transportation Workers Union of America (TWU) Local 556, which is the union she paid dues to. She had long had disagreements with the union, and in 2013 she even “resigned” from the union, after realizing her beliefs didn’t align with those of the union. She was still required to continue paying dues as a condition of her employment, though.

Fast forward to early 2017:

  • Carter complained to the union president about flight attendants going to a march in Washington DC, where more than half a million people protested former President Trump’s position on abortion and other issues
  • Carter wasn’t happy that union dues were being used to attend an anti-abortion rally, and wasn’t happy that flight attendants who wanted to attend were being granted schedule adjustments
  • Carter sent Facebook messages, including some with videos of alleged aborted fetuses, to Audrey Stone, who was the union president at the time
  • Carter called Stone “despicable” and said she would be voted out of office

Stone reported Carter to the company, and Southwest Airlines ended up firing Carter for violating the company’s policies on bullying and the use of social media. Southwest said her Facebook posts (in which she could be identified as a Southwest employee) were “highly offensive,” and that her private messages were harassing.

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Carter thought that wasn’t fair, and has been pursuing legal action against the airline and union for the past five years.

Jury sides with flight attendant

A federal jury in Texas has sided with the former Southwest flight attendant, arguing that she was unlawfully discriminated against for her sincerely held religious beliefs. Furthermore, the jury found that the union did not fairly represent her and retaliated against her for expressing her views.

If this stands, Carter will be awarded $5.3 million, including $4.15 million from Southwest Airlines and $1.15 million from Transportation Workers Union of America (TWU) Local 556. This consists primarily of punitive damages, but also consists of some back pay from the airline.

Both the airline and union plan to appeal this decision. Southwest said in a statement that the airline “has a demonstrated history of supporting employees’ rights to express their opinions when done in a respectful manner,” while a lawyer for the union argued that the “factual evidence indicates an outcome different from the recent decision of the jury, which may have misunderstood the court’s charge.”

Meanwhile Carter said the following in a statement:

“Today is a victory for freedom of speech and religious beliefs. Flight attendants should have a voice and nobody should be able to retaliate against a flight attendant for engaging in protected speech against her union. I am so humbled and thankful for today’s decision and for everyone who’s supported me these past five years, including the National Right to Work Foundation.”

Bottom line

After a roughly five year legal battle, a former Southwest flight attendant has been awarded damages over being fired from the airline. Southwest claims that the flight attendant violated the company’s social media policy with her public and offensive anti-abortion posts, and she was also accused of harassing the union president, after union dues were used to attend a rally in Washington DC.

Obviously abortion has become an even hotter topic following the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, so I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole in this context, or the concept of “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

I guess the one thing I’m curious about is if you voluntarily leave the union (even though you continue to have to pay dues), does the union have to continue representing you? If the union does, then what are the practical implications of leaving the union?

I’m curious to see if an appeal is successful here, or if this person and her lawyers are really going to walk away with $5+ million.