Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (General Committee of Adjustment, Central Region), et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants,
Union Pacific Railroad Company, Defendant-Appellee.
September 14, 2017
from the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 16 C 2730 -
Edmond E. Chang, Judge.
Wood, Chief Judge, and Ripple and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.
relations in the railroad industry have been subject to a
distinctive regulatory regime ever since the Railway Labor
Act (RLA or Act) took effect in 1926. See 45 U.S.C.
§§ 151-88. No one wants to see the nation's
transportation network brought to a standstill because of
labor conflict. The RLA therefore is designed to substitute
bargaining, mediation, and arbitration for strikes.
in the Act is a strong preference for arbitration, as opposed
to judicial resolution of disputes. If a disagreement arises
over the formation or amendment of a collective bargaining
agreement (CBA), it is considered a "major" dispute
under the Act, and it must be decided by a court. See
Consolidated Rail Corp. v. Ry. Labor Execs.'
Ass'n, 491 U.S. 299, 302-03 (1989). If, on the other
hand, it relates only to the interpretation or application of
an existing agreement, it is labeled "minor" and
must go to arbitration. Id. at 303. In the case
before us, the Union Pacific Railroad (the Railroad) issued a
modified disciplinary policy for its engineers without first
sitting down at the bargaining table with their union, the
Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (the Union).
The Union argues that the Railroad could not take this step
before bargaining and that its unilateral action violates the
RLA. It also contends that the dispute itself is a major one
not suitable for arbitration.
that the playing field is tilted heavily in favor of
arbitration, the district court agreed with the Railroad that
the dispute is minor, and it accordingly dismissed the
lawsuit in favor of arbitration. Although the Union has made
a number of good points, we conclude that there is at least a
non-frivolous argument that interpretation of the agreement
between the parties, not change, is at stake. We therefore
affirm the district court's decision dismissing the suit
for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.
summary of the underlying facts can be brief. The Brotherhood
of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen is composed of three
unions that represent engineers employed by the Railroad,
which is itself an amalgamation of several former railroad
carriers. As a result, the Railroad is a party to multiple
overlapping CBAs with different groups of employees.
current dispute originates from the Railroad's decision
in 2015 to modify a set of disciplinary rules; the new policy
was set forth in something called MAPS, which stands for
Managing Agreement Professionals for Success. Before that
time, the same subset of the Union's members was subject
to disciplinary rules contained in a mid-1990s agreement,
known as UPGRADE. In the years before 2015, the Railroad made
several changes to UPGRADE over the Union's objections.
When it shifted from UPGRADE to MAPS it again did not consult
the Union. Around the time MAPS was being rolled out,
however, the Railroad polled members of the Union about what
changes they would like to see in the existing disciplinary
subset of the Union's members is party to an agreement
called the 1995 Southern Pacific Agreement, a CBA that also
establishes disciplinary rules. The Railroad became subject
to this agreement when it absorbed the former Southern
Pacific Western Lines.
allows employers to use either of two methods for changing
"rates of pay, rules, or working conditions of 
employees": first, they may act in any way permitted by
an existing CBA; or second, they may go through the
bargaining and negotiation procedure prescribed in section
156 of the Act. See 45 U.S.C. § 152 Seventh. In other
words, the central topics of rates of pay, rules, and working
conditions are subject to mandatory bargaining. Both parties
agree that MAPS is a disciplinary policy that falls within
the scope of "rules" and "working
conditions" and is thus subject to these limits.
Union sees this case as straightforward, in its favor. Since
MAPS is subject to RLA section 152 Seventh and it was
implemented without going through the section 156 procedures,
the Union reasons, the Railroad changed a mandatory subject
of bargaining without the necessary participation of the
Union. But matters are not that simple. Critically, the Union
overlooks the fact that even in the absence of negotiation,
changes are permitted if authorized by contract. For the same
reason, the primary case on which the Union relies is
inapposite. That case holds that the courts, rather than
arbitrators, are the proper forum for cases in which a
carrier unilaterally changes conditions of employment. See
Airline Pilots Ass'n Int'l. v. Nw. Airlines,
Inc.,199 F.3d 477, 479-80 (D.C. Cir. 1999) (airline
industry, to which the RLA also applies). But a change is
"unilateral" only if it was accomplished without
contractual authority; if it is made under the aegis of a
contract, it would not (by definition) be unilateral. Thus,
Airline Pilots is helpful to the ...