Union Pacific and Workers Sue Each Other Over New Attendance Policy

A Union Pacific employee on board a locomotive in 2017, at a rail yard in Council Bluffs, Iowa. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

(CN) – Union Pacific Railroad and Chicago union workers sued each other on Friday over the implementation of a new attendance policy and the prospect of a strike.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen asked the federal court in Northern Illinois for an injunction against a new attendance policy that would go into effect on March 1.

The workers claimed that “without first bargaining to an impasse,” Union Pacific would violate the Railway Labor Act by implementing the policy.

According to their lawsuit, the workers sent a “cease and desist” letter to the railroad and demanded it maintain the status quo until bargaining took place.

“Union Pacific has rejected that letter and indicated that it intends to make the unilateral change to an established work rule on the basis that it has the inherent management right to do so,” the train workers stated.

On the same day, Union Pacific sued the workers, seeking a declaratory judgment that the dispute is not big enough to warrant a strike.

Union Pacific stated that the workers “have refused to submit a dispute over such changes to binding arbitration as required by the Railway Labor Act” and have given this issue the “major dispute” label.

“Disputes concerning the interpretation or application of a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) are known as ‘minor disputes.’ Minor disputes are subject to mandatory arbitration, and strikes over such disputes are prohibited,” the Nebraska-based railroad asserted.

It also noted that in a lawsuit filed in 2007, it “has already prevailed on the merits of a virtually identical dispute with the same Union.”

Union Pacific asserted that it changed its attendance policy unilaterally in 2003 and revised it in 2006. The company then survived a legal challenge from the union, according to the lawsuit.

“On June 12, 2007, this Court dismissed the count in BLET’s complaint alleging that issuance of the new attendance policy constituted a major dispute, and held that the dispute about Union Pacific’s implementation of the new attendance policy was a minor dispute that must be resolved in arbitration,” the lawsuit stated.

In addition, the railroad noted, a Special Board of Adjustment ruled in 2011 that the company was allowed “to implement policies to control excessive absenteeism, unless there is a negotiated contractual provision limiting that basic right in specific written terms.”

Union Pacific claimed that the parties’ collective bargaining agreements do not limit its right “to define what absences are ‘unexcused’ or what level of absenteeism is excessive.”

In addition to a classification of a minor dispute, the railroad also asked for a declaration that the union’s “threat to strike against Union Pacific violates the RLA by seeking to circumvent the mandatory and exclusive authority of the National Railroad Adjustment Board.”

Attorney Michael Persoon of the Chicago law firm Despres, Schwartz & Geoghegan filed the lawsuit on behalf of the union workers. Union Pacific is represented by Jeremy Glenn of the Cozen O’Connor firm in Chicago. Neither immediately responded to an email request for comment.

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