ATDD, BLE score major legal victory over Norfolk Southern

The BLE, ATDD, and the rest of rail labor scored a major court victory on June 22 as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a unanimous decision stating that there is no implied "damages remedy" in the Railway Labor Act available to carriers in the event of a strike over a minor dispute.

Both the ATDD and BLE, as well as top executives of each organization, were defendants in the case.

The ruling stems from a Sept. 3, 1997 strike by the American Train Dispatchers Department of the BLE against Norfolk Southern (former Southern Railway lines). NS argued it was entitled to damages because the ATDD strike was a minor dispute as defined under the Railway Labor Act (RLA).

The Court, however, ruled that a "damages remedy" is at odds with the Railway Labor Act.

"The aim of the RLA is to channel the parties' efforts toward resolution of their labor disputes within the Act's carefully devised framework," the Court said in its decision. "If we imply a statutory damages remedy in the case of minor dispute strikes, the parties will be drawn into contentious and time-consuming litigation in a separate venue when they should be devoting their energies to face-to-face bargaining or arbitration to resolve the underlying labor dispute. In short, litigating about damages in a judicial forum would divert the parties' attention from the Act's comprehensive process for dispute resolution."

The Court also said that giving carriers a statutory right to damages following strikes over minor disputes would upset the balance of power Congress sought to create when it enacted the Railway Labor Act in 1934.

"We are hesitant after all these years to do anything that might upset the delicate balance, particularly since the Act is structured to keep judicial involvement at a minimum," the Court ruled. "As the Supreme Court has recognized, 'distinguishing between major disputes and minor disputes' can be a 'difficult task.' Circuit decisions confirm that the distinction is not always clear. As the Sixth Circuit has said, 'if damages were available and the union guessed wrong in calling a strike over what was later adjudged a minor dispute, it would be liable for damages that could deplete the union treasury and impair its effectiveness as the collective bargaining agent.'

"Weakening a union in this way would run counter to the RLA provisions aimed at ensuring that the parties are evenly matched as they pursue negotiations."



2000 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers