US: Rail bosses sue over "sick-out" wildcat strike

Between September 22 and 24, 80% of the Salt Lake City area's train engineers called in sick in a row over working hours. Now Union Pacific are suing their union.

Submitted by Steven. on October 17, 2006

Paul Beebe in The Salt Lake Tribune reported that in a move that upends conventional wisdom about labor disputes, Union Pacific Railroad Co. has sued the union representing Salt Lake City-area train engineers who walked off their jobs because they couldn't work as many hours as they wished.

UP has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking an injunction against more work stoppages by many of the 200 local members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, who shut down 70 trains for three days in late September.

The suit "was in response to a wildcat strike that started Sept. 22 and lasted through Sept. 24," said UP spokesman Mark Davis Friday. "About 80 percent of the engineers organized a sick-out. With the way the Railway Labor Act is written, that is against the law."

Tim Donnigan, a defendant and chairman of the union's nine-state Western region, declined to discuss the lawsuit, citing his attorney's advice.

"Suffice it to say, I don't agree with what the carrier is doing," said Donnigan, whose office is in Pocatello, Idaho.

The company and union are squabbling over the number of hours train engineers can safely work. According to their labor contract, engineers must accept work assignments at any time of the day or week, including weekends and holidays.

Citing safety reasons, UP wants to control the number of hours engineers work. Engineers, whose pay is figured on the number of miles they operate their trains, want the option to work as many trains as possible, which may require them to work long hours.

Because of the unpredictability of the railroad industry, engineers typically do not work the same hours, but rather are assigned to labor pools and are called to work on a rotating basis. They are also put on "extra boards," which are lists of off-duty engineers who can be called to fill in when someone is unable to work.

The number of engineers in a pool or on an extra board affects the number of hours an engineer works and what he or she earns. On average, pools earn between 3,200 miles and 3,800 miles a month. An average engineer's salary is $70,000 a year, according to UP's Davis.

Davis said UP wants to regulate the staff assigned to the pools so that the monthly mileage earned by the pool is around 3,200 miles. The union says engineer pools historically have been allowed to work at or even above 3,800 miles a month. It argues UP should regulate the pools at the higher level, which would allow engineers to boost their incomes.

"We increased the number of employees that work on trains out of the Salt Lake City terminal," Davis said. "The reason we did that was to enable them to get more rest and quality time with their families. What we are addressing is, from a safety standpoint, the fatigue and quality-of-life issues that have become more and more in the spotlight over the years."

The two sides have discussed the issue for more than six months. According to the lawsuit, Donnigan threatened an "insurrection" several times unless the pools were regulated closer to the higher mileage figure.

On several Sept. 22 runs out of Salt Lake, the number of absences tripled to levels that UP said were so far in excess of normal that they constituted an illegal strike.

In total, the trains were delayed about 250 hours. In addition to issuing an injunction, UP has asked the court to award unspecified punitive damages.