Appeals court reverses 'major dispute' ruling in BMWE case

A three-judge panel from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a ruling by a Colorado District Court judge that the Union Pacific's plans to close its track panel plant in Laramie, Wyo., constituted a "major dispute" under the Railway Labor Act (RLA).

As reported by the BLE last February 24th, the original court action was taken after the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes (BMWE) struck Union Pacific (UP), because of the carrier's announced plans to outsource construction of track panels and shutter the plant, where the work was being performed by BMWE members.

In ending the strike, the Colorado court also enjoined UP from moving ahead with its plans to close the plant, finding that such action would violate the RLA.

Under the RLA, labor disputes fall into one of two categories. Disputes over the creation of new contractual rights are termed "major disputes," and must be handled under specific provisions of the law, beginning with the serving of a Section 6 notice, and followed by negotiation and possible mediation, voluntary binding arbitration.

If these steps do not provide a resolution, the act also allows the President to appoint an emergency board to study the dispute and issue recommendations for settling it. For decades, Congress has seized on these recommendations and imposed legislated settlements, in order to avoid lengthy rail strikes.

During the period that major disputes are being handled, the parties must maintain the status quo, and are legally forbidden from implementing any proposed changes. Because, in the District Court's view, UP's actions were prohibited by its collective bargaining agreement with the BMWE, the dispute was found to be major and UP was enjoined from moving forward.

So-called "minor disputes" under the RLA grow out of grievances or out of the interpretation or application of collective bargaining agreements, and are subject to conference and, ultimately, compulsory arbitration.

In reversing the District Court, the 10th Circuit found that "what the Union is really seeking is enforcement of the existing collective bargaining agreement" and that "any attempt to resolve the dispute will inevitably involve interpretation of that agreement."

Commenting on this development, BLE General Counsel Harold A. Ross said, "This decision underscores how it has become nearly impossible to persuade a federal court that a carrier's action - no matter how outrageous or unfounded - constitutes a major dispute, and how the odds are overwhelmingly against rail unions when they try to enforce their members' rights."

The BMWE has asked the full Tenth Circuit court to review the panel's decision.

2001 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers