Efforts to prevent a COVID-19 vaccine mandate from being implemented on Chicago’s commuter rail system were thwarted last week when a federal judge ruled against two rail unions’ requests to stop it.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, ruled against the preliminary injunction filed by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) asking the courts to stop Metra’s vaccine mandate. The court said the unions must settle with Metra on the vaccine instead of going on strike.
Although Thursday’s decision pertains to commuter rail, the decision is potentially significant because the unions are also involved in similar lawsuits against Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP), Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) and BNSF (NYSE: BRK.B). Those three legal proceedings are still open, although UP’s proceeding has paused as similar lawsuits involving COVID-19 vaccine mandates are before other federal courts.
“Needless to say we are disappointed in the outcome of this lawsuit, especially considering other federal judges blocked vaccine mandates,” BLET President Dennis Pierce and SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said in a release. “We will continue to fight to protect the rights of our members during these historically difficult times.”
The unions had argued that Metra had no authority to unilaterally implement and enforce a COVID vaccination mandate among its employees without the required bargaining pursuant to the Railway Labor Act (RLA).
They contended that as a result of not negotiating with the unions, Metra violated the status quo requirement per the RLA, which in turn qualifies the matter as a “major dispute.” A major dispute permits actions such as organizing a strike.
But the court ruled that the matter could be construed as a “minor dispute,” per the RLA. The court also rejected the unions’ argument that the mandate should be put on hold as the Adjustment Board decides on the dispute, according to a Friday release from the unions.
“The test is whether Metra has the authority to institute the vaccination mandate, not why it subjectively believed it had the authority to do that. If Metra’s basis for claiming authority to impose the mandate is not ‘obviously insubstantial or frivolous’ — as the court has found — then the dispute over the mandate is appropriately classified as a minor dispute under the RLA,” said the Thursday decision by District Judge Matthew F. Kennelly.
Kennelly continued, “The unions suggest in their briefs that unless Metra can show a past practice of unilaterally implementing vaccination mandates, [Metra’s] argument is ‘obviously insubstantial or frivolous.’ This raises the bar too high. Although vaccination may involve more intrusion and more claimed risk than other procedures Metra has mandated in the past, these are differences of degree, not of kind.”
Kennelly concluded that even without President Joe Biden’s executive order requiring all federal workers and federal contractors to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, the union’s dispute should be considered as a minor dispute under RLA and subject to mandatory arbitration under the RLA.
BLET, BMWED join Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO
BLET also announced Friday that it, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWED) and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades have joined the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) of the AFL-CIO.
Their decision to join comes as the broader transportation industry is facing both opportunities and challenges, in the form of the federal infrastructure package and an unpredictable COVID-19 pandemic.
“2022 will be a year of tremendous challenges and opportunities,” said TTD President Greg Regan. “Our task will be made more difficult by a narrowly divided and increasingly partisan Congress and, of course, the midterm elections looming in November.”
BLET and BMWED are both divisions of the Rail Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
“Our re-affiliation with TTD and its Rail Labor Division (RLD) once again unites all rail labor unions in one common organization. We look forward to working with all of TTD’s officers, staff and affiliated unions; we are always stronger, and our members are best represented, when we are working together,” said BLET President Pierce.
The three unions that just joined TTD bring its coalition membership to 36 affiliated unions. They join the American Train Dispatchers Association; Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen; International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers; International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; National Conference of Firemen & Oilers, SEIU; Transportation Communications Union/IAM; Transport Workers Union of America; and UNITE HERE.
Said BMWED President Freddie Simpson, “I am excited for the prospect of advancements for all railroad workers that could come through all of rail labor uniting under TTD. I look forward to working with TTD President Greg Regan, Secretary-Treasurer Shari Semelsberger and the very capable TTD staff. Rail labor is always strongest and prospers most when we stand united against the railroads, and TTD will certainly help with our fight.”