The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) have filed suit against Amtrak over implementation of its COVID-19 vaccine policy.
Their position: “that Amtrak has no authority to unilaterally implement and enforce a COVID vaccination mandate among its employees, and that its actions in failing to negotiate terms of implementation violate the status quo requirement of the Railway Labor Act, thus engendering a major dispute.”
The suit—filed Nov. 23 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division—is similar to claims filed by BLET and SMART-TD against Union Pacific (UP), Norfolk Southern (NS) and BNSF, according to the unions.
In a joint statement, BLET National President Dennis Pierce and SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said, in part: “Amtrak has ordered all employees to submit proof prior to December 8, 2021, that they have received at least one vaccine shot, and submit proof by January 4, 2022, that they have received their final vaccine shot, or they will be subject to termination of employment. Amtrak is directly dealing with its employees instead of negotiating with us over its unilateral mandate.”
Amtrak CEO William J. Flynn on Nov. 22 issued an updated vaccination mandate letter to all employees (see below).
Asked for a statement about the union suit, Amtrak told Railway Age it “will review the filing and respond accordingly.”
According to a Reuters report, NS “filed a petition in Chicago federal court on Thursday [Oct. 21] claiming the unions’ objections to the [vaccination] mandate must be brought in arbitration and not in court because they involve the interpretation of an existing bargaining agreement rather than changes to one.” Due to the Executive Order, NS said it “reserves the right under its agreements with the unions to impose a mandate in order to comply.”
According the NS petition, Reuters reported, “the unions contend that imposition of a mandate constitutes a unilateral change to bargaining agreements in violation of the federal Railway Labor Act.
“But Norfolk Southern said that because its bargaining agreements allow it to make changes in order to comply with new laws, including Biden’s executive order, it has not violated the RLA.
“The RLA distinguishes between ‘minor disputes’ involving interpretation of terms of a CBA, which must be heard in arbitration, and ‘major disputes’ over changes to agreements. The law also bars strikes and similar conduct by workers in cases involving minor disputes.
“Norfolk Southern says the case presents a minor dispute because its bargaining agreements do not bar the railroad from adopting a vaccine mandate.”
Amtrak’s Nov. 22 Letter to Employees
“COVID-19 Vaccination Mandate Update – Federal Contractor Enforcement Deadline Extended to Jan. 4, 2022
“A Message From Bill Flynn
“To All Amtrak Employees,
“Our Amtrak team has made significant progress in getting vaccinated against COVID-19. To date, 88.2% of all employees and 94% of employees we expect to be available for service in December have gotten at least one vaccine shot. We are grateful to everyone who has taken the vaccine and complied with our requirement on a timely basis.
“Throughout the pandemic, Amtrak has consistently used federal guidance and public health expertise to shape our vaccination policy. With Amtrak now subject to the Biden Administration’s vaccine mandate in the Executive Order for federal contractors, we continue to align our policies to ensure compliance. Following recent changes to this Executive Order, we are further adjusting our policy to reflect that, while our deadline for obtaining at least one dose remains Dec. 8, 2021, enforcement for non-compliance will now begin on Jan. 4, 2022.
“Accordingly, we are making the following updates to our vaccination mandate policy:
“• Employees are expected to provide proof of at least one vaccine shot by Dec. 8.
“• Employees who have not provided proof of any vaccine shot by Dec. 8 will be allowed to remain in service until Jan. 4, 2022. However, these employees will receive a counseling letter that they are not in compliance with the vaccine mandate and the directive to have provided proof of all required vaccine shots by Jan. 4, 2022.
“• Employees who fail to submit proof of having received their final vaccine shot prior to Jan. 4, 2022, will be considered insubordinate (in violation of Amtrak policy) – with the termination process to begin immediately.
“• Employees who have been granted a reasonable accommodation will have their effective accommodation date moved to Jan. 4, 2022.
“• Amtrak will publish a revised service schedule by mid-December, based on our then-current vaccination rate. The company continues to prepare for the possibility that some number of employees will choose not to get vaccinated and will therefore be leaving the company, which could necessitate some temporary reductions of Amtrak service.
“• All “red badge” contractors are also required to comply with the federal contractor Executive Order vaccine mandate by Jan. 4, 2022.
“ These changes bring us into alignment with the updated Executive Order deadlines for federal contractors. We appreciate your continuing commitment to achieve a 100% vaccine rate.
“If you have any further questions on the vaccine or the mandate, please email … or call the Amtrak vaccination hotline at … and choose option … .
“Thank you for your continued support in helping keep yourselves and everyone around us safe.
“Amtrak Chief Executive Officer”
“Labor Leaders Putting Members’ Lives at Risk,” by Frank N. Wilner, Railway Age Capitol Hill Contributing Editor