Carriers ask court okay to violate contracts

July 1, 2009

The nation’s major railroads have asked a federal court to permit them to violate existing collective bargaining agreements with the UTU and the BLET when the railroads implement new hours-of-service regulations that take effect July 16.

 The soon-to-be-implemented hours-of-service limitations are directed by Congress in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA), whose intent is to reduce train-crew fatigue and improve the quality of life of train crews.

The lawsuit was filed by the carriers in U.S. district court in Ft. Worth, Texas, and the UTU and the BLET intend to mount a vigorous defense.

The carriers acknowledge in their lawsuit that they intend to implement the new regulations as they see fit; and, in so doing, may violate existing labor agreements with respect to wage guarantees.

“Quite simply, the railroads have asked the court to overturn their collective bargaining agreements with the UTU and the BLET,” said UTU International President Mike Futhey. “The carriers want court approval to disregard collective bargaining agreements in violation of the Railway Labor Act.

“In fact,” said Futhey “the Rail Safety Improvement Act provides expressly for collective bargaining on this issue, containing a provision permitting general chairpersons to negotiate a better balance between time off and earnings, while preserving guaranteed time off.

“This lawsuit is not about assuring the safety of its employees,” Futhey said. “This lawsuit is all about protecting the carriers’ profits. It is nothing more than the carriers’ attempt to put the entire burden of the new hours-of-service limitations on the backs and pocketbooks of their employees.”

BNSF, CSX, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific, who jointly filed the lawsuit, asked the court to declare that any dispute, arising out of their unilateral implementation of the new hours-of-service regulations, is a “minor” dispute under the Railway Labor Act, which requires binding arbitration. “All railroads would benefit financially at the expense of employees and safety if this carrier lawsuit is successful,” Futhey said.

The carriers acknowledge in their lawsuit that they have national and local contracts that include express written agreements, and implied agreements based on past practice, whose intent is to ensure a minimum number of train crews. These agreements relate to guaranteed assigned work, employee pools and extra boards.

But because the provisions of the Rail Safety Improvement Act will impose a cap on hours worked, the carriers want unilaterally to change existing contracts to put on employees the entire financial brunt of the hours-of-service changes. The carriers want to reduce the employees’ guaranteed payments to, as they say in their lawsuit, “reflect the employee’s unavailability.”

The carriers also say they intend to prohibit employees from self-scheduling themselves to comply with the new hours-of-service regulations, a practice recognized by existing contracts.

The railroads assert in the lawsuit that “they have the right, consistent with existing agreements, to take all steps necessary to effectuate the RSIA-mandated changes in hours-of-service rules.”

By contrast, say the carriers, the UTU and the BLET “contend that the actions taken by the carriers to effectuate the RSIA-mandated changes in hours-of-service rules would override the parties’ agreements in violation of the Railway Labor Act’s restrictions on unilateral changes in agreements.

The railroads want the court to issue a declaration that “the RSIA-related disputes alleged herein are minor and subject to arbitration under [the Railway Labor Act].”

The joint UTU-BLET reply to the lawsuit will be reported at upon its filing with the federal district court.