Union Pacific’s Alleged Anti-Union Bias Spat to Stay in Court

BY J. EDWARD MORENO for news.bloomberglaw.com

  • Court has jurisdiction over dispute alleging retaliation
  • District judge found ‘strong likelihood’ union will prevail

Union Pacific Railroad Co.‘s suspension of all elected leaders of a division of the railroad workers’ union following an off-duty fistfight likely violated federal law, allowing the courts to step in, the Fifth Circuit ruled.

The district court had jurisdiction under the Railway Labor Act to intervene in the dispute between Union Pacific and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit said Wednesday. 

The RLA, which governs labor relations in the railroad and airline industries, largely requires employee discipline cases to go through arbitration, according to the three-judge panel. But the law allows courts to remedy employer conduct allegedly motivated by anti-union animus, the appeals court said.

The decision marks a rare pro-labor decision from the conservative appeals court.

“The district court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that the union is likely to prevail in showing that Union Pacific’s suspension of effectively all the division’s elected representatives amounted to the interference the RLA prohibits,” Judge Gregg Costa wrote for the court.

The dispute began in early 2021 when the union’s Division 192 in El Paso, Texas, advised members not to take extra shifts that are deemed to be safety risks, known as “shoves.” Shoves aren’t banned under the union’s collective bargaining agreement.

Employee David Cisneros disagreed with the union and took the extra shifts anyway. The dispute ultimately led to an off-duty fistfight involving Cisneros and union officers before a union meeting.

Cisneros filed a complaint, and Union Pacific responded by indefinitely suspending six union members, including all five of the division’s officers. The company didn’t discipline Cisneros.

The union later filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. The district court granted the union’s request for a preliminary injunction, finding a “strong likelihood” that the labor organization would prevail on its claim that Union Pacific violated the RLA by retaliating against union leaders for their position on shoves.

On appeal, Union Pacific argued that the dispute was considered a “minor” issue more suited to arbitration because it only pertained to one division of the bargaining unit.

“Unable to dispute most of these facts, Union Pacific argues that an interference claim needs to undermine the entire union, not just a local unit like Division 192,” the Fifth Circuit said. “No authority supports that view.”

A “minor” dispute would be a disagreement over the interpretation of the CBA, not a question of whether Union Pacific violated federal law by retaliating against union members, the appeals court said.

The union and Union Pacific didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Judges James L. Dennis and Stephen A. Higginson joined the opinion.

Wentz, McInerney, Peifer & Petroff LLC and Tanner & Associates PC represented the union. Cozen O’Connor PC and Rincon Law Group PC represented Union Pacific.

The case is Bhd. of Locomotive Eng’rs & Trainmen v.

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