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Union Pacific, unions spar over vaccine mandate rollout

Parties sue each other in federal court in Illinois

A Union Pacific train. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Union Pacific and rail union members are sparring in federal court over how UP should implement a federal mandate requiring certain companies to ensure their employees are vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 8.

Both sides say the other is failing to negotiate accordingly under guidelines spelled out in the Railway Labor Act. Both parties, alongside other railroads and union members, are also in the midst of multiyear negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.

UP (NYSE: UNP) filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on Friday to prevent the unions from striking or taking other actions that could affect operations.

The railroad wants any dispute over the mandate, issued by President Joe Biden, to be resolved through dispute resolution procedures outlined in the Railway Labor Act.

“This action is necessary to prevent any disruption of the national rail network and to avoid any impact on America’s supply chain, as it continues to recover from the pandemic,” UP said in a statement on Monday. “We continue to work with our employees and their union representatives as we comply with the law. We look forward to the court’s help in that effort.”

Meanwhile, the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) also filed a lawsuit on Friday in the Illinois court. SMART-TD has support from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division.

SMART-TD also says the vaccine mandate should be addressed through negotiation, but that UP’s efforts to implement the mandate have circumvented that process. Those efforts, according to a Friday statement from SMART-TD and BLET, include offering a financial incentive for compliance or threatening medical disqualification from work if a worker refuses the vaccine.

According to SMART-TD, declaring a medical disqualification would be “a complete overhaul of the physical requirement process for the position of trainman as employees will be unilaterally barred from performing their jobs with no recourse.” The union also said UP didn’t bargain with the union over the vaccine mandate.

“We generally support our members getting the vaccine. However, we have several objections to UP’s unilateral implementation of their policies mandating them and illegally dealing directly with its represented employees. The members of our Unions — including members who already are vaccinated — are irate over UP’s outrageous conduct,” said SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson and BLET National President Dennis Pierce in a Friday joint statement.

“We have been in contract negotiations with UP since November of 2019, and federal law absolutely bars railroads from changing rates of pay, rules and working conditions while negotiations are ongoing. Not only is UP in violation of the law, it has explicitly spurned our demands that these matters be bargained. We have filed suit today in the United States District Court for Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, in an effort to stop UP’s lawlessness in its tracks.”

“Over the past two weeks, the Union Pacific Railroad seems to have forgotten that it is not Walmart. The railroad has unilaterally changed pay provisions for vaccinated employees who experience a breakthrough COVID infection due to workplace exposure,” they said.

UP countered in its lawsuit that it “remains willing to meet with the Union to discuss any concerns related to Union Pacific’s compliance with the Mandate for federal contractors.”

“It is Union Pacific’s position that its implied right to set fitness for duty standards includes the right to require employees to comply with the requirements of the Mandate. Union Pacific’s position is supported by decades of past practice, and is, at a minimum, not frivolous or obviously insubstantial,” UP said in its lawsuit.

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One Comment

  1. PO’d L Worker

    You all need to get in touch with Norfolk southern worker’s they’re really upset they never were paid essential worker pay they were just given a letter to show they were essential workers. Norfolk Southern got covid relief money and kept it they didn’t give their workers a dime and now they’re being forced to take a vaccine because of the greedy CEO’s accepted bailouts for covid

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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.