Although she was about to publicly reveal a nightmarish personal experience—and the worst mistake of her life—Charlene Carter strode confidently through a stately Dallas federal courtroom.
Carter knew her testimony would prove pivotal in her five-year quest to be reinstated as a Southwest Airlines flight attendant. But she also believed she was carrying the torch for freedom of speech, employee rights, and right versus wrong.
As muffled gasps rippled through the gallery, Carter disclosed the untold story that gave rise to the anti-abortion views that got her fired. At age 19, she aborted an unwanted pregnancy. The decision would haunt Carter in almost every facet of her life, touching off a chain reaction that thrust her into the national spotlight.
Last month, days after Carter testified in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, a jury voted to award her more than $5 million—a unanimous verdict declaring that Carter’s ex-employer trampled her rights and illegally fired her for “protected speech” about religious beliefs and opposition to her union, Transport Workers Union of America Local 556.
The jury also decided that Local 556 breached its duty to represent Carter. Instead of protecting Carter’s interests, the union president sought to get Carter fired for social media activities. On Facebook, Carter railed against the union’s participation in the 2017 Women’s March—a massive protest that abortion provider Planned Parenthood sponsored in Washington, D.C., the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Now, as lawyers spar over how the will of Carter’s jury should be imposed, Carter still doesn’t know whether she’ll get her job back—and concerns are mounting over the alleged unholy alliance that Carter’s case exposed: union leaders and company management working in concert to target union dissidents for terminations.
“For a long time, Charlene stood by herself, with very few people by her side … people misunderstood the nature of the lawsuit,” said a Southwest worker who asked not to be identified for fear of losing her job.
Now that Carter’s trial transcripts are publicly available, many airline employees have been reading them. “And they see this is much bigger than her, and that she’s not just some crazy right-wing, pro-life nut,” the Southwest employee said. “This is about freedom of speech for all of us, freedom to oppose the union, and to stand up for what you believe in.”
Horrified During Abortion
The genesis of Carter’s case dates to 1985. Then a student at Texas Woman’s University, she remembers feeling apprehensive as her boyfriend drove her along MacArthur Boulevard toward a Planned Parenthood office in the Dallas area, where she would terminate her pregnancy.
Years later, Carter would drive along that same road, heading toward Southwest Airlines’ headquarters in search of a job—the same position that, ironically, she would lose in 2017 because of anti-abortion sentiments that arose from her experience at the abortion clinic.
In an interview with The Epoch Times, Carter, 56, of Aurora, Colo., talked about her lawsuit, the events that led up to it, and what she hopes will happen next.
When Carter arrived at Planned Parenthood, she asked questions about the baby she was about to abort—a decision that contradicted her values and beliefs.
Carter had aspired to become an OB-GYN, so she could help women give birth. And, from a very young age, even though Carter’s household wasn’t particularly religious, she felt close to God. She would habitually pray: “God, please protect all the children of the world.”
Still, Carter felt backed into a corner. She and her boyfriend were unprepared for parenthood and feared the repercussions of revealing an out-of-wedlock pregnancy to their families.
With coaxing from her boyfriend, Carter made an abortion appointment. Back then, very little information was available. Carter wanted to know more about the development of the 10-to-12-week-old fetus she was aborting. She recalls a Planned Parenthood staffer responding: “At this point in your pregnancy, it’s just a clump of cells … you have nothing to worry about … it’s just basically this round blob of stuff.”
Based on that belief, Carter went forward with the procedure. Feeling “a little loopy” from a mild sedative, Carter remained aware of her surroundings. She heard the whirring of a suctioning machine and felt pulling inside her—as predicted. Then Carter encountered the unexpected: “Something made me turn over to the left,” giving her a glimpse of a container. It held the vacuumed-out contents of her uterus: bloody fluid and identifiable “little parts” of a baby, she said.
Carter was horrified. She burst into tears and immediately knew she had committed a cardinal sin. She vomited. “I was sick from the anesthesia, and sick from what I just did,” Carter said.
Years of Agony
She was filled with regret and self-loathing—feelings that linger 37 years later. When Carter shared her abortion experience in court on July 8, jurors seemed to have been taken aback, “like, ‘whoa,’ they didn’t see this coming,” said one observer who asked not to be identified because she works at Southwest.
“A few people were getting teary-eyed and grabbing each other’s hands,” the observer said. “I think it was a shock to the majority of the people there, who didn’t know the very personal reason why she felt so strongly about abortion.”
Carter said women need to know: “This isn’t just a clump of cells. It truly is a little human, and he’s now torn apart” during an abortion. Carter says she would never have gone through with the procedure if she had been better informed.
She was astounded to learn many things about the baby she aborted: “Its heart was already beating … its fingerprints were already developed, specific to that child; eye color had already been decided,” she said. “It’s an amazing creation that God has made…each one is so different, so intricately made.” From the time an egg is fertilized, cell multiplication goes into overdrive. “It’s like an explosion,” Carter said. “It’s like when God created this world.”
Lamenting her ignorance and flawed judgment, Carter descended into a fog of depression and shame that didn’t dissipate for years. Getting an abortion is “something you can never take back,” Carter said. And, as a Christian, “it’s the worst thing you could probably do,” violating one of the Ten Commandments.
Her initial post-abortion years were a blur; Carter said, “I just wanted to forget. I just wanted it to go away.”
Although Carter later married her boyfriend, disagreements and tension over the abortion persisted—especially after she learned that the abortion jeopardized her chances of having a baby when she was ready.
About two years into the marriage, Carter suffered a medical emergency: an ectopic pregnancy. The developing egg had implanted in a fallopian tube instead of in her uterus, requiring surgical embryo removal.
During an internal examination, a doctor found scar tissue, apparently a consequence of a previous procedure. Carter had to admit: “I had an abortion.”
The doctor said that, because of abortion-inflicted damage to her female organs, he didn’t know whether Carter would be able to have babies. Again, Carter was devastated. She was filled with renewed disgust for herself and resentment for the man who had been her first love.
“At that point, I thought God was telling me…’ what you did was so wrong,’” and was punishing her by taking away that second baby, Carter said.
Despite her doctor’s concerns, Carter conceived another child. Her son, Christopher, was born in 1990. Grateful for the gift of a happy, normal, healthy infant, Carter began re-examining her relationship with God. She began to feel that he had forgiven her and had some greater mission intended for her. It just hadn’t become apparent what it was yet.
Partly because her first marriage never recovered from the abortion, it ended in divorce. Carter met her future second husband after going into the nail salon business. One of her clients had a son with an unusual name, Jhara. When the client introduced Carter to her son, Carter immediately recognized him as her soulmate.
The pair married in 1998 and had a daughter, Hannah, in 2003. By this time, Carter was feeling blessed. She was a happily married mother of two. She also was well-established in her career as a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines.
Still, Carter hadn’t quite forgiven herself. That changed around 2007 when she attended a “hot topics” women’s meeting at Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas. The purpose was to explore “things that most churches don’t discuss,” Carter said. And, to Carter’s surprise, on that autumn evening the “hot topic” was abortion.
Speaking to about 100 women in the main sanctuary, a woman stood up and told her personal story. After having an abortion, she let regret wreck her life. But she finally realized God had forgiven her and “wiped it clean,” Carter recalled. Then, the presenter asked the crowd: Please stand if abortion has ever affected you, a family member, or an acquaintance. “Almost every one of the women in attendance stood up,” Carter said. “I just couldn’t believe it, how many women abortion has touched.”
Carter believed that God had placed her at that meeting for a reason. She left inspired. “From that night on, I promised God that I would never, ever stay silent about abortion again,” she said. She vowed to become an advocate for the unborn and to help women understand the potential consequences of abortion, such as those she suffered. This, she knew, should be her mission.
Soaring With Southwest
For years, Carter felt like she and Southwest airlines were riding high together.
“I had gotten my dream job,” she said, noting that she was hired in 1996 after three attempts. Before working at Southwest, Carter had done a stint at American Airlines. There, she started in an office job before becoming a flight attendant—a position her first husband frowned upon. But her second husband, Jhara, was a pilot, so he shared her passion for flight. Just after meeting Jhara—who flew airplanes for other employers, not Southwest— Carter landed that coveted job at Southwest.
“It showed me how small and how beautiful the world really is, and it made me so happy to bring some happiness to people who got on board,” Carter said. “I thought working at Southwest was a huge gift.”
Besides enjoying close-knit, fun-loving relationships with co-workers, “I got to work under the most amazing CEO in the world,” Carter said, referring to Herb Kelleher. A founder of the airline, Kelleher remained a top executive for 30 years, more than half the company’s 51-year existence.
When he passed away in 2019, Kelleher, 87 , was beloved for his folksy, down-to-earth attitude and emphasis on treating customers and employees with “LUV,” the stock-ticker symbol for the airline based at Love Field, Texas.
Carter and other veteran Southwest employees miss the billionaire executive who waded into the trenches with them.
“Your CEO gets on the airplane, and he’s slinging drinks and peanuts and helping you fill your glasses with ice, and he’s talking to the flight attendants and then the people on the airplane,” Carter said.
“It was just the most amazing thing to see that he cared about all of us here and would go from city to city just flying around on what I considered to be his airplanes.”
Carter also respected Kelleher’s right-hand lady, Colleen Barrett. She had worked at Kelleher’s law firm as an executive assistant. But as Southwest grew, so did her influence. Barrett became president of the airline in 2001.
“She wanted to make sure it was a family, a loving culture between the employees,” Carter said. Serving until 2008, Barrett has been president emerita since then.
Carter and other employees say that the culture that Barrett and Kelleher spent years cultivating is now fading.
For longtime flight attendants, one cause of the alleged cultural deterioration can be traced back at least a decade ago. A series of ugly disputes within the labor union began. Carter’s court case outlines some of that history with Transport Workers Union of America Local 556.
In 2013, the ouster of a duly-elected slate of candidates under “dubious” accusations rankled many members; Carter and many other employees “opted out” of Local 556. But as nonmembers, they were still forced to pay fees that supported the union—and the union was obligated to represent the employees’ interests.
Conflicts continued for the next several years, with union bosses complaining to management about dissenters such as Carter. Emails documenting the conversations surfaced as part of Carter’s court case.
In a 2014 example cited at trial, union activist Brian Talburt emailed Sonia Lacore, a senior manager of flight attendants. Talburt said he favored “targeted assassinations” of the union’s enemies—using the company’s strict social media policy to fire employees who dared to speak out.
This could apply to employees who, like Carter, expressed opinions on their personal social media pages with no direct reference to Southwest.
On Feb. 7, 2017, in response to union activities that she viewed as pro-abortion, Carter posted a video of an aborted fetus on her Facebook page, along with these words: “WARNING, this is VERY GRAPHIC!! I want my tax dollars to STOP funding this….PERIOD!!!! This is MURDER.”
Company officials searched back about five years in Carter’s Facebook posts to find several photos that they argued could be used to connect Carter and her “highly offensive” anti-abortion posts to Southwest. This, they said in her termination letter, made her “identifiable” as a Southwest employee and could create a false impression that she was representing the airline with her anti-abortion messages. Officials said this constituted a violation of the company’s social media policy; that was one reason they cited for firing Carter.
In contrast, the company took no action when its name appeared on a banner that Local 556 members carried during the Women’s March; pictures of that banner and the marchers from Local 556 showed up on social media, too, according to court records.
The company also said it fired Carter because she repeatedly sent private messages to Audrey Stone, who was then president of Local 556. Stone said the posts upset her. But she never sent a reply to Carter, nor did she block her on Facebook.
A week after her aborted-fetus post, Carter sent four Facebook messages to Stone, including two videos of aborted fetuses. In a comment posted with one of the videos, Carter wrote: “This is what you supported during your Paid Leave with others at the Women’s MARCH in DC … You truly are Despicable … by the way, the RECALL is going to Happen.”
On Feb. 22, 2017, a company official sent a warning to all flight attendants, reminding them of the company’s policies on social media and workplace bullying. That same day, Stone filed a complaint against Carter alleging violations of those policies—and Talburt lodged a flurry of similar allegations against other union objectors.
The company summoned Carter for “a fact-finding meeting,” but Carter said she felt like company officials’ minds were already made up. Soon afterward, they fired her.
Carter was in disbelief. She couldn’t believe that after devoting herself to an otherwise unblemished career of nearly 21 years, she was terminated over social media posts that, in her view, had nothing to do with the company.
Carter believed she had a right to complain about the union’s activism; as a Christian, she felt compelled to share videos showing “the truth of what abortion is all about.”
After her dismissal, Carter was despondent. She went through internal procedures to get her job back, but found the company’s reinstatement terms unacceptable.
Heading to Court
Carter turned to the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation, a nonprofit that fights union abuses. When the foundation asked Carter what she wanted from litigation, she replied: “I never want this to happen again to any other flight attendant or any other employee who is under a union.”
Carter’s lawsuit went to trial in July, almost five years after she filed it. Ed Schneider, a Southwest manager, testified why he fired Carter: “She crossed the line” and violated company policies with her social media postings.
Schneider also stated: “I didn’t consider it to any extent to be religious activity,” which would be protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Nor did he consider whether Carter’s complaints to the Local 556 president constituted “union activity.”
During closing arguments, Southwest’s lawyer emphasized: “the policies are important.” He argued that Carter’s messages contradicted Southwest’s policies and “culture of respect and tolerance.” But Carter’s lawyer declared: “Robust speech is protected” under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), a federal labor-relations law that applies to railroads and airlines. “Their policy doesn’t overcome the law,” he said.
After daylong deliberations on July 14, the jury spoke. Jurors decided in Carter’s favor. They found that Southwest and the union had violated her rights under federal laws and Local 556 breached its duty of fair representation. The jury also awarded her more than $5 million.
Patrick Semmens, vice president of the foundation representing Carter, said in an email: “A win like this shows that an individual can successfully fight back … rank-and-file workers covered by the Railway Labor Act have robust protections when they are speaking out against union policies.”
Unbeknownst to Carter’s jury, Title VII caps damages. Carter’s attorney is asking the judge to approve the maximum: $600,000, plus $150,000 in lost wages and benefits. Carter’s lawyer is also asking the court for other orders, including returning Carter to her job. In a court filing, the company objected, asserting that her reinstatement would cause “workplace disruption in a safety-sensitive environment.”
But Carter says the company and the union have the power to restore harmony. She called upon them to halt the tactics used against her and others.
“I want to go back, hold my head up high and say, ‘You can’t do this anymore,’” Carter said. “I’d like to see us bring back what the original Southwest was, or at least some form of that.”