Railway Labor Act Creates Federal Jurisdiction for Alleged Disparate Discipline

By Jeffrey Rhodes June 29, 2022
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Takeaway: Under the Railway Labor Act, federal jurisdiction may exist over a seemingly minor disciplinary issue if the discipline was allegedly based on anti-union animus.

​A union established Railway Labor Act (RLA) discrimination when an offsite brawl resulted in the suspension of members of its leadership but not a pro-railway member, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen is a labor union representing more than 5,000 Union Pacific engineers. It is made up of a number of local units or divisions. Division 192 is the exclusive representative for Union Pacific employees in and around El Paso, Texas. 

During early 2021, tension arose within the division over the union's stance on "shoves." Engineers take shoves when they accept extra shifts at the request of the railroad. The union took a position against taking shoves, but one engineer continued taking them. Two Division 192 officers, the local chairman and vice local chairman, confronted the engineer about his behavior via text message and the division's Facebook page.

Mounting tensions ultimately erupted into an off-duty fistfight before a union meeting. The meeting was scheduled at a local restaurant. The pro-shove engineer arrived a half hour before the start time. A number of the division's officers, including the local chairman and vice local chairman, had already arrived and were chatting in the parking lot.

The engineer approached the vice local chairman and allegedly struck him repeatedly until he fell to the ground. The local chairman and other division members attempted to separate the parties, and a shouting match ensued. In the tumult, the engineer crossed back over to the vice local chairman, who had risen to his feet, and allegedly punched him until he collapsed again. The two were finally separated, and the meeting took place without the engineer or the vice local chairman.

Almost two months later, the engineer filed a complaint with Union Pacific, alleging that he had been threatened and physically assaulted by the local chairman and the vice local chairman in retaliation for taking extra shifts. A company supervisor met with the engineer about the incident and took statements from two other employees. One of these employees wrote that he had witnessed part of the altercation and helped to diffuse the situation. The other employee was not present at the time of the altercation but said that he also took shoves and had been subject to similar harassment by the vice local chairman.

About a week later, Union Pacific indefinitely suspended the local chairman and vice local chairman without pay. It also suspended three other union officers and one more union member. The engineer's initial report did not allege that those four individuals were directly involved in the fight; rather, they were simply bystanders. Union Pacific did not take their statements before disciplining them.

All six individuals received notices of investigations stating that they would be subject to disciplinary proceedings that could result in termination. The local chairman and vice local chairman were charged with violating two Union Pacific policies prohibiting violence in the workplace and discourteous, immoral or quarrelsome behavior, and the other four bystanders were charged with failing to take any action to stop the fight or report the incident to management.

The engineer was not suspended or issued a notice, even though it is Union Pacific's policy to discipline every participant in a physical altercation. It also did not discipline the other engineer who witnessed the fight, even though he had not made any effort to report the incident.

The suspension of six union members effectively barred all the members of Division 192's leadership team from the premises. The officers claimed that they could not perform most union duties remotely.

Within days of the suspensions, the union sued Union Pacific in federal court, alleging that it retaliated against the union for its shove policy in violation of the RLA, which prohibits interference with union activity. The union sought an injunction requiring Union Pacific to end its investigation and reinstate the suspended employees. Union Pacific filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, arguing that the dispute needed to be arbitrated. The district court granted the preliminary injunction and denied the motion to dismiss.

Union Pacific appealed to the 5th Circuit. On appeal, the 5th Circuit found that the district court had jurisdiction because of the evidence of anti-union animus by Union Pacific. It ruled that the district court had not abused its discretion in granting an injunction to the union. Union Pacific argued that the union was not likely to succeed on its interference claim. The court found that the evidence that members of the union's active-duty leadership had been suspended and two pro-shove employees were not supported the finding of a likelihood of success.

Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., 5th Cir., No. 21-50544 (Apr. 13, 2022), petition for rehearing en banc denied (May 10, 2022).

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with McInroy, Rigby & Rhodes LLP in Arlington, Va.

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