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Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern vaccine lawsuits combined in court

Unions also sue Amtrak over COVID-19 vaccination policy

Ongoing lawsuits between railroad unions and two Class I railroads over requiring employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine have been consolidated in federal court.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on Nov. 17 combined two proceedings, one involving Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) and the other involving Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC), according to a Monday update from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET). Judge John Z. Lee will oversee the proceeding.

BLET, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers-Transportation Division (SMART-TD) and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division are involved in this proceeding. 

In October, both UP and NS said they would be complying with an executive order by President Joe Biden that federal employees and contractors must receive the COVID-19 vaccine by a certain date. UP and NS are federal contractors. 

In a filing Monday, NS told the court that it still considers the matter with the unions a “minor dispute” over differing interpretations of the collective bargaining agreement. In these situations, the dispute should be handled by arbitration under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), not the courts, attorneys for NS said.

But the unions say NS’ and UP’s actions to implement COVID-19 vaccination mandates unilaterally bypass the collective bargaining process. The unions say they have sought court injunctions against NS and UP asking that the status quo be maintained until the bargaining process is completed. Failing to maintain the status quo qualifies as a “major dispute” subject to court action.

Meanwhile, both the railroads and the unions asked the courts in a Nov. 15 filing to have separate lawsuits involving BNSF and Chicago commuter rail line Metra reassigned to Judge Lee. Since the BNSF (NYSE: BRK.B) and Metra suits are also about how the railroads should implement a COVID-19 vaccination policy, “these two cases share common issues of fact and law, such that reassigning them will serve the interests of judicial efficiency,” they said.

Rail unions sue Amtrak over COVID-19 vaccine policy

The question about how the railroads should implement a policy requiring employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine has spilled onto Amtrak.

BLET and SMART-TD said Tuesday that they have also filed suit against Amtrak over how the passenger railroad is implementing the vaccine policy without bargaining under the RLA. This suit is similar to the ones involving UP, NS and BNSF.

“Amtrak has ordered all employees to submit proof prior to Dec. 8, 2021, that they have received at least one vaccine shot and submit proof by Jan. 4, 2022, that they have received their final vaccine shot or they will be subject to termination of employment. Amtrak is directly dealing with its employees instead of negotiating with us over its unilateral mandate,” said BLET National President Dennis Pierce and SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson in a joint statement on Tuesday.

“We have several objections to Amtrak’s unilateral implementation of its policies mandating them and illegally dealing directly with its represented employees. We will continue to fight on behalf of all BLET and SMART-TD members in an effort to stop Amtrak’s lawlessness in its tracks.”

In response to the filing, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said, “Amtrak will review the filing and respond accordingly.”

In a Monday advisory to Amtrak employees, CEO Bill Flynn noted that 88.2% of all employees and 94% of employees anticipated to be available in December have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot. 

“Throughout the pandemic, Amtrak has consistently used federal guidance and public health expertise to shape our vaccination policy. With Amtrak now subject to the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate in the executive order for federal contractors, we continue to align our policies to ensure compliance,” Flynn said.

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.