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Norfolk Southern moves to bar union lawsuits over vaccine mandate

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  • Disputes over vaccine mandate belong in arbitration, not court
  • Railroad says case presents "minor dispute" barring strikes, picketing
  • Union Pacific filed similar case last week

Oct 22 (Reuters) - Norfolk Southern Railway Co has filed a lawsuit seeking to block its employees' unions from suing over a COVID-19 vaccine mandate and to prevent its workers from striking or picketing in protest of the requirement.

Norfolk Southern, represented by Jones Day, filed a petition in Chicago federal court on Thursday claiming the unions' objections to the 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.

The Atlanta-based railroad says that because President Joe Biden has issued an executive order requiring federal contractors to mandate vaccines for workers, it reserves the right under its agreements with the unions to impose a mandate in order to comply.

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Norfolk Southern sued the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers, known as SMART, and two other unions that represent its employees.

The unions did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Union Pacific Corp, the largest U.S.-based railroad, filed a similar petition in the same court last week. Union Pacific said the move was necessary to prevent any disruption of its rail network and to avoid any impact on the country's supply chain as it continues to recover from the pandemic.

On Thursday, Norfolk Southern said it had announced the adoption of its vaccine mandate a day earlier, and that it believed the unions would object to the requirement based on positions they have taken in related matters involving other companies. Some individual workers have begun threatening to engage in walk-outs, "sick-outs" and slowdowns in response to the mandate, the railroad said.

According to the petition, 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 intepretation 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.

The case is Norfolk Southern Railway Co. v. International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, No. 1:21-cv-05622.

For Norfolk Southern: Samantha Woo of Jones Day

For the unions: Not available

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.

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