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National Railroad Passenger Corporation v. Transport Workers Union of America

July 02, 2004


Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 03cv02010)

Before: Ginsburg, Chief Judge, and Henderson and Rogers, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ginsburg, Chief Judge

Argued May 21, 2004

Amtrak appeals an order of the district court denying its motion to enjoin five unions from conducting a one-day strike. Amtrak argues the district court should have enjoined the strike as a violation of the Railway Labor Act, 45 U.S.C. §§ 151 et seq. The Unions argue the RLA is inapplicable because the strike does not concern matters at issue in bargaining between Amtrak and the Unions but rather is directed at the Congress and the President. The United States appears as amicus curiae in support of Amtrak. Because we reject the factual premise of the Unions' argument, we hold the strike must be enjoined pursuant to the RLA, for which purpose we remand this matter to the district court.

I. Background

In the fall of 2003 Amtrak announced it would be forced to shut down if it received a congressional subsidy of less than $1.8 billion for FY 2004. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives had passed a bill appropriating $900 million for Amtrak while the Senate had passed a bill providing $1.3 billion. After Amtrak's announcement, five unions representing Amtrak employees put out press releases saying they would stage a "work stoppage" in order to protest "the Bush Administration and Congress' refusal to properly fund Amtrak." The Unions' stated goal was to publicize Amtrak's bid for increased appropriations and to show the public what would happen if Amtrak were to shut down.

At the time the Unions announced their plan they were (as they are still) engaged in negotiation or mediation with Amtrak over the terms of new collective bargaining agreements. Amtrak sought to enjoin the strike on the ground that the RLA prohibits self-help during the negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement. The Unions agreed to refrain from the strike until after the district court had decided Amtrak's motion for a preliminary injunction. Meanwhile, Amtrak's President, David Gunn, had told the Congress the railroad needed at least $1.3 billion -- $500 million less than previously claimed -- and the House and the Senate had agreed in conference to provide Amtrak $1.22 billion in FY 2004.

The district court denied Amtrak's motion for a preliminary injunction, stating the RLA "does not impose an absolute bar against strikes" during collective bargaining but instead "establishes procedures for channeling disputes into a dispute resolution process." Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Transp. Workers Union, 294 F. Supp. 2d 60, 64 (D.D.C. 2003). The district court held the RLA did not bar this strike because the Unions' "dispute with Congress and with the administration over Amtrak funding cannot be resolved by negotiation, mediation, or arbitration with Amtrak." Id. (emphasis in original). The district court further held the RLA should not be construed to prohibit "self-help with respect to any dispute with anybody for any reason" during collective bargaining because then the railroad would be entitled "to an injunction as a matter of law, regardless of the unions' purpose," id. at 66, that is, even if the strike was directed at the political process rather than the process of collective bargaining. Amtrak appealed, and the Unions again agreed to refrain from striking until this court has ruled.

II. Analysis

The issue on appeal is whether the Unions' proposed strike violates the RLA. If it does, then the district court must enjoin it; if it does not, then the Norris-LaGuardia Act, 29 U.S.C. § 101 et seq., precludes the district court from enjoining it. See Bhd. of R.R. Trainmen v. Chicago River & Indiana R.R. Co., 353 U.S. 30, 42 (1957) ("[T]he specific provisions of the [RLA] take precedence over the more general provisions of the Norris-LaGuardia Act").

The goal of the RLA is ambitious: "to provide for the prompt and orderly settlement of all disputes concerning rates of pay, rules, or working conditions," 45 U.S.C. § 151a(4), in order to "avoid any interruption to commerce or to the operation of any carrier engaged therein." 45 U.S.C. § 151a(1). To that end § 2 First of the RLA, 45 U.S.C. § 152 First, obligates carriers and the unions that represent their employees to "exert every reasonable effort to make and maintain agreements concerning rates of pay, rules, and working conditions, and to settle all disputes ... in order to avoid any interruption to commerce or to the operation of any carrier growing out of any dispute between the carrier and the employees thereof." See Detroit & Toledo Shore Line R.R. Co. v. United Transp. Union, 396 U.S. 142, 153 (1969) ("The obligation of both parties ... is to preserve and maintain unchanged those actual, objective working conditions and practices, broadly conceived, which were in effect prior to the time the pending dispute arose and which are involved in or related to that dispute").

The RLA applies to two types of disputes between a carrier and a union representing its employees. A "major dispute" concerns changes in "rates of pay, rules, or working conditions," 45 U.S.C. § 151a(4), and relates to "the formation of collective bargaining agreements or efforts to secure them." Hawaiian Airlines, Inc. v. Norris, 512 U.S. 246, 252 (1994). A "minor dispute" involves a controversy over the "interpretation or application of [an] agreement[ ] covering rates of pay, rules, working conditions." 45 U.S.C. § 151a(5). In short, "major disputes seek to create contractual rights, minor disputes to enforce them." Hawaiian Airlines, 512 U.S. at 253 (quoting Consol. Rail Corp. v. Ry. Labor Executives' Ass'n, 491 U.S. 299, 302 (1989)). Amtrak and the Unions are presently engaged in a "major dispute" over the content of new collective bargaining agreements.

The RLA establishes a sequence of mandatory procedures for the resolution of a major dispute. The initial step is negotiation between the carrier and the union. See 45 U.S.C. § 152 Second. If negotiation fails, then the dispute is referred to the National Mediation Board. See 45 U.S.C. § 156. If the NMB fails to mediate the dispute and if it determines the dispute "threaten[s] substantially to interrupt interstate commerce to a degree such as to deprive any section of the country of essential transportation service," then the President may create an emergency board to arbitrate the dispute and to "report [to the President] respecting such dispute." 45 U.S.C. § 160. If arbitration fails, then there is a mandatory 30-day "cooling-off" period during which "no change" may be made by either side to "the conditions out of which the dispute arose." Id. These exhaustive provisions "form an integrated, harmonious scheme for preserving the status quo from the beginning of the major dispute through the final 30-day `cooling-off' period." Detroit & Toledo Shore Line R.R., 396 U.S. at 152. If, and only if, negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and the cooling-off period fail to produce an agreement, may the parties resort to self-help -- the employer by unilaterally changing rates of pay, rules, or working conditions, the union by striking. See Air Line Pilots Ass'n, Int'l v. Northwest Airlines, Inc., 199 F.3d 477, 479 (D.C. Cir. 1999).

In this case, the Unions argue their proposed strike does not "grow[ ] out of" their on-going "major dispute" with Amtrak, 45 U.S.C. ยง 152 First, and therefore is not subject to the status quo provisions of the RLA. More specifically, they claim the status quo provisions of the RLA are inapplicable because the subject of the work stoppage "is not the subject matter of pending bargaining or mediation," and "is not about rates of pay, rules, or working conditions involved in or related to the dispute subject to ...

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