Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois, Peoria Division.
No. 96 C 1248 Joe B. McDade, Judge.
Before CUDAHY, RIPPLE and KANNE, Circuit Judges.
A strike by even a small part of our nation's railroad workers could bring much of interstate commerce to a halt and disrupt the daily lives of millions of Americans. This risk of disruption brought about the enactment of the Railway Labor Act, 45 U.S.C. sec. 151 et seq., (RLA or Act). The Act's main purpose is to "avoid any interruption to commerce or to the operation of any carrier engaged therein." 45 U.S.C. sec. 151a. The RLA works not by controlling the types of independent action employers and unions can take after bargaining has failed (e.g., strikes, lockouts). Instead, the RLA strives to prevent interruptions of interstate commerce by creating a mediation structure which requires the parties to "exert every reasonable effort to make and maintain agreements . . . and to settle all disputes . . . to avoid any interruption to commerce." 45 U.S.C. sec. 152, First. The obligation that parties "exert every reasonable effort" has been described as the "heart" of the RLA. Bhd. of R.R. Trainmen v. Jacksonville Terminal Co., 394 U.S. 369, 377-78 (1969). The obligation is a legal one, given shape by the National Mediation Board's (NMB) recommendations and "enforceable by whatever appropriate means might be developed on a case-by-case basis." Chicago & N.W.R.R. Co. v. United Transp. Union, 402 U.S. 570, 577 (1971). The NMB is free to "experiment with any mediation device that can fairly be said to be designed to settle a dispute without a strike and does not independently offend other laws." Int'l Ass'n of Machinists v. Nat'l Mediation Bd., 930 F.2d 45, 48 (D.C. Cir. 1991). Any party to a dispute may invoke the NMB when the dispute concerns changes in rates of pay, rules or working conditions; the NMB may also proffer its services without a request from a party. 45 U.S.C. sec. 155, First.
Here, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), representing the locomotive engineers, conductor/brakemen and carmen employed by Fort Smith Railroad Co. (Railroad), invoked the NMB on March 28, 1995. At that point, negotiations had been ongoing since October 11, 1994. The NMB assigned Robert Martin to perform mediation, and sessions were held on May 2, August 15 and November 8 of 1995 and on January 30, 1996. All of these sessions were held at the Railroad's headquarters in Peoria, Illinois. On February 8, 1996, Stephen Crable, the NMB's Chief of Staff wrote the following letter to the parties:
Mediator Robert B. Martin will resume mediation involving the Fort Smith Railroad Company and the BLE-ATDA Division, Case Nos. A-12715, A-12716 and A-12717, at the NMB's office in Washington, DC, at 10:00 a.m. on February 28 and 29, 1996. Please advise who will represent you and provide local telephone and fax numbers.
In immediate response the Railroad wrote: "we cannot agree to a meeting in Washington, D.C. We are, however, agreeable to meeting on February 28, or March 1 (Tuesdays and Thursdays are bad days for us), at a 'neutral' site. I have proposed Springfield, Illinois, since that is where Mr. Martin is located. . . . [W]e would also agree to St. Louis." The NMB acceded to the Railroad's objections and held the mediation session in St. Louis on February 28, 1996. Unfortunately, that session, like those before it, failed to result in a resolution.
The next mediation session was again scheduled to take place in Washington D.C., on April 24 and 25, 1996. And again, the Railroad objected to the site:
[W]e do not feel that Washington, D.C. is an appropriate site. FSR's office is in Peoria, Illinois, and its operations are in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Washington is a very long way from both of those places.
Secondly, FSR presented its final offer to the Union during our recent bargaining session in St. Louis. My notes indicate that Mr. Volz said he was not going to recommend the contract . . . .
You indicated to me this morning that you felt the Union was rejecting the proposal. Assuming that the union is unwilling to accept our final proposal, because it does not include seniority, I think we all agreed in ...