Rail Labor scores another win for FMLA
Rail Labor scored another major court victory in its ongoing battle to protect workers' rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
On March 2, the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Seventh Circuit unanimously upheld the District Court's January 3 ruling in favor of the unions' challenge to the major rail carriers' decision to force employees to use their vacation and personal leave days for FMLA purposes, rather than at the times the employees choose as provided in the collective bargaining agreements. The Court held that in order to do that, the carriers first have to bargain changes in the agreements under the Railway Labor Act.
"This is a hard fought victory for hard working railroaders," said Don Hahs, National President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. "Many unions worked together to achieve this outcome, which is yet another sign of our unity and strength."
However, he cautioned that the carriers would possibly appeal the decision.
"We're not out of the woods yet," President Hahs said. "It's possible the carriers could appeal the decision again through the court system, or may attempt to take cases to arbitration. It would be unfortunate if railroads choose to do so, as we are confident any other court or arbitrator would rule on Rail Labor's behalf."
According to its decision, the Court "focus[ed its] discussion on the important principle at stake, rather than the intricate differences between various collective bargaining agreements."
The Court rejected the carriers' argument that reconciling the FMLA and the RLA meant that "the FMLA, being the newer and, in their view, the more specific Act, trumps the RLA and controls the situation, thus giving the carriers authority to unilaterally institute its anti-stacking policies." In the Court's opinion, the more specific needs of the railroad industry, its "special characteristics [and] unique problems," and how Congress determined they should be addressed - through mandatory Section 6 bargaining - prevail over the FMLA provision that merely permits employers to require substitution. The Court put it this way:
"Section 152 Seventh of the RLA tells railroads what they must not do - change working conditions except in the manner dictated by the agreements or in § 156, which requires notice, a conference, and, in some cases, mediation. Section 2612 of the FMLA simply tells employers what they may do - require substitution - not what they must do. A reasonable conclusion is that, while substitution is allowed, the carriers cannot require substitution without complying with procedures set out in the RLA. Using those procedures, the carriers can bargain for substitution provisions."
The Court also recognized that the rights contained in the National Vacation Agreements and supplements were "the subject of hard bargaining [and t]he right to time one's vacation and, to a perhaps slightly lesser degree, personal leave, is a hard-won right of railroad workers."
"It would seem quite odd indeed," the judges said, "that this elaborate process, and the decades of bargaining, can be wiped out by unilateral action on the part of the carriers, based on a statute which says they may require substitution, but which says nothing about the process for instituting a substitution requirement."
The bottom line: "The carriers must comply with the RLA in implementing their actions under the FMLA. In short, the FMLA does not allow the carriers to violate contractual obligations protected by the RLA regarding paid vacation and personal leave time."
"Obviously, this is a major victory for rail labor," said Mike Wolly and Margo Pave of Zwerdling, Paul, Kahn, & Wolly, P.C., successfully represented the interests of five of the eleven rail labor unions involved in the case, in addition to BLET - the IBEW, ATDA, BRS, NCFO, and SMWIA.
"The dispute is not yet over, but this is a major step toward ultimately upholding the members' contract rights. We appreciate all your help in providing us with the necessary factual basis for supporting the arguments we were able to make on your behalf and we congratulate you on achieving this victory that we will work equally hard to preserve."
A copy of the 7th Circuit Court's decision is available on the BLET website at:
© 2007 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen