International Association of Sheet metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers et al v. Iowa Northern Railway Company
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER denying 7 Plaintiffs' Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction. Signed by Chief Judge Leonard T Strand on 7/19/2021. (jag)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF IOWA
INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF
SHEET METAL, AIR, RAIL AND
TRANSPORTATION WORKERS –
TRANSPORTATION DIVISION, et al.,
IOWA NORTHERN RAILWAY
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND
ORDER ON PLAINTIFFS’ MOTION
FOR A TEMPORARY
RESTRAINING ORDER AND
This case is before me on plaintiffs’ motion (Doc. 7) for a temporary restraining
order (TRO) and preliminary injunction pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65.
Plaintiffs ask the court to (1) order defendant Iowa Northern Railway Company (Iowa
Northern) to reverse changes it unilaterally made with regard to employees’ rates of pay
and the collection of union dues and (2) enjoin Iowa Northern from making further
unilateral changes to any issue governed by the parties’ collective bargaining agreement
(CBA) until the parties’ have completed the procedures set forth in the Railway Labor
Act (RLA) for negotiating such changes. Plaintiffs argue that Iowa Northern’s unilateral
changes violate the RLA’s requirement that the status quo not be changed while
negotiations pursuant to the RLA are ongoing.
Plaintiffs’ motion (Doc. 7) was filed July 2, 2021, along with a brief and
supporting declarations and exhibits. In response, Iowa Northern filed the declaration
(Doc. 15) of William Magee, its General Manager, with accompanying exhibits. I
conducted a telephonic hearing on July 13, 2021. Attorneys Mark Hedberg and Erika
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Diehl-Gibbons appeared for plaintiffs. Attorneys Chloe Pedersen and James Helenhouse
appeared for Iowa Northern, along with its General Counsel, Scott Bannister.
additional evidence was presented. After hearing the parties’ arguments, I took the matter
The RLA was enacted to facilitate collective bargaining, and help resolve labor
disputes, between carriers and labor organizations with the goal of “minimizing
interruptions in the Nation’s transportation services.” See Int’l Ass’n of Machinists, AFLCIO v. Cent. Airlines, Inc., 372 U.S. 682, 687–88 (1963); 45 U.S.C. § 151a. To that
end, it requires carriers and unions to “exert every reasonable effort to make and maintain
agreements concerning rates of pay, rules, and working conditions, and to settle all
disputes.” Id. § 152, First. Additionally, once a CBA subject to the RLA is established,
it is perpetual and may be changed only through bargaining procedures established by the
RLA. 45 U.S.C. §§ 152, Seventh, 156.
The RLA’s procedures for changes to a CBA depend on whether the changes give
rise to a “major” or “minor” dispute. See Missouri-Illinois R. Co. v. Ord. of Ry.
Conductors & Brakemen, 322 F.2d 793, 795–96 (8th Cir. 1963). A dispute is “major”
if it involves changes to rates of pay, work rules or working conditions. See Elgin, J. &
E. Ry. Co. v. Burley, 325 U.S. 711, 723 (1945), adhered to on reh’g, 327 U.S. 661
(1946). A dispute is “minor” when it deals only with the interpretation or application of
an otherwise undisputed agreement. Id. The parties agree that the dispute here is major.
For major disputes, the RLA first requires the parties to meet and attempt to settle
the dispute between themselves. Missouri-Illinois R. Co., 322 F.2d at 795–96; 45 U.S.C.
§ 156. This process begins with what is known as a “section 6 notice,” which the party
seeking changes must give at least 30 days before the date it desires to implement the
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changes. See 45 U.S.C. § 156.1 Within 10 days of receipt of a section 6 notice, the
parties must agree on a time and place to hold an initial conference to begin negotiations,
which must take place within the 30 days provided in the notice unless otherwise agreed
to by the parties. Id. If the parties are unable to reach an agreement during their
conferences, either party may invoke the services of the National Mediation Board
(NMB) within 10 days of the termination of negotiation conferences. Id. §§ 155, First,
If neither party seeks mediation after conferences are terminated, the RLA’s
requirements are met and the party seeking changes to the CBA may resort to “self-help.”
Bhd. of R.R. Trainmen v. Jacksonville Terminal Co., 394 U.S. 369, 378 (1969).
If the parties resort to mediation with the NMB, but the dispute is not resolved,
the NMB has two courses of action. First, it will “endeavor to induce the parties to
submit the controversy to binding arbitration, which can take place . . . only if both
consent.” 45 U.S.C. §§ 155, First, 157. Second, “if arbitration is rejected and the
dispute threatens ‘substantially to interrupt interstate commerce to a degree such as to
deprive any section of the country of essential transportation service, the [NMB] shall
notify the President,’ who may create an emergency board to investigate and report on
the dispute.” Bhd. of R.R. Trainmen, 394 U.S. at 378 (quoting 45 U.S.C. § 160). If
the parties do not agree to binding arbitration, and no emergency board is created, the
RLA requires a 30-day cooling off period, after which the RLA’s procedure is exhausted
and the parties may resort to self-help. 45 U.S.C. § 155, First. If an emergency board
is created, the parties are not bound by its recommendations and may resort to self-help
30 days after the board’s report.
The RLA’s dispute resolution procedure is based on two important premises. The
first is that no part of the RLA’s procedure is binding, unless both sides voluntarily agree
to binding arbitration. See Bhd. of R.R. Trainmen, 394 U.S. at 378–79. The purpose of
the RLA is not to compel a settlement, but to create procedures that “are purposely long
“Section 6” is a reference to 45 U.S.C. § 156, where section 6 of the RLA was codified.
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and drawn out, based on the hope that reason and practical considerations will provide in
time an agreement that resolves the dispute.” See Bhd. of Ry. & S.S. Clerks, etc. v.
Florida E.C.R. Co., 384 U.S. 238, 246 (1966). The second premise is that until the
RLA’s procedures have been exhausted, the parties must maintain the status quo. 45
U.S.C. § 156; Detroit & T. S. L. R. Co. v. United Transp. Union, 396 U.S. 142, 149
(1969). The status quo requirement is “central” to the RLA’s design, as it gives the party
not seeking changes “the power . . . to preserve the status quo for a prolonged period .
. . mak[ing] it worth-while for the moving party to compromise with the interests of the
other side and thus reach agreement without interruption to commerce.” Detroit, 396
U.S. at 150.
Plaintiffs and Iowa Northern entered into a CBA on November 15, 2015. The
agreement included a moratorium on amendments until April 1, 2020. Despite the
moratorium, Iowa Northern proposed changes to the CBA in August 2019. The parties
entered into negotiations and reached a tentative agreement to raise pay rates, but union
members ultimately rejected it.
On April 1, 2020, when the moratorium expired, plaintiffs initiated the RLA’s
procedure for making changes to the CBA by providing a Section 6 notice to Iowa
Northern that described the desired changes. Conferences to negotiate the proposed
changes were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and Iowa Northern’s refusal to
conduct conferences via telephone or video.2 In-person conferences were eventually held
on January 15, March 24 and March 25, 2021. During the March 25 conference,
representatives for Iowa Northern allegedly told plaintiffs that prior tentative agreements
Parties may waive, or change by agreement, some of the procedural requirements of § 156.
See Childers v. Bhd. of R.R. Trainmen, 192 F.2d 956, 959 (8th Cir.1951); see also Ry. Lab.
Executives’ Ass’n v. Bos. & Maine Corp., 664 F. Supp. 605, 611 (D. Me. 1987). It appears
Iowa Northern waived the 30-day time limit for an initial conference.
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were off the table and that plaintiffs would need to “start from scratch” if an agreement
were to be made. Negotiations ended abruptly shortly thereafter, but there is a dispute
as to who decided to stop negotiations and what exactly each party said. There is also a
dispute as to whether, or to what extent, the parties intended and attempted to schedule
further conferences in the following weeks.
On May 4, 2021, Iowa Northern submitted its own Section 6 notice to plaintiffs
that proposed, among other things, amending the rates of pay and eliminating union fee
deductions. On June 5, 2021, Iowa Northern sent a letter to plaintiffs claiming that
plaintiffs had received its Section 6 notice on May 10, 2021, and had failed to
acknowledge receipt by May 20 and schedule an initial conference by June 4. According
to Iowa Northern, negotiations and conferences as to plaintiffs’ Section 6 notice had
terminated without either party seeking the services of the NMB and, because plaintiffs
failed to take any action in response to Iowa Northern’s Section 6 notice, Iowa Northern
was entitled to enact its proposals (i.e., engage in self-help). It further stated that its
proposed changes would go into effect on June 5, although it appears the changes were
not implemented until June 16. Plaintiffs submitted a request for mediation to the NMB
on June 17, 2021, and the NMB docketed the case on June 23, 2021.
“A preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy never awarded as of right.”
Winter v. Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 24 (2008). As a result, the party
requesting an injunction bears the burden of proving that it is warranted. Roudachevski
v. All-Am. Care Ctrs., Inc., 648 F.3d 701, 705 (8th Cir. 2011). A district court has
considerable discretion in ruling on a request for preliminary injunctive relief. See
Sharpe Holdings, Inc. v. U.S. Dep’t of Health & Human Srvs., 801 F.3d 927, 936 (8th
Cir. 2015), vacated on other grounds, 2016 WL 2842448 (2016).
The Eighth Circuit explained the standards for determining whether injunctive
relief is appropriate in Dataphase Sys., Inc. v. C L Sys., Inc., 640 F.3d 109, 114 (8th
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Under the Dataphase test, the court must consider: (1) the threat of
irreparable harm to the movant; (2) the balance between the potential harm and any harm
that granting the injunction will cause to other parties to the litigation; (3) the probability
that the movant will succeed on the merits; and (4) the public interest. Med. Shoppe
Int’l, Inc. v. S.B.S. Pill Dr., Inc., 336 F.3d 801, 803 (8th Cir. 2003); see also Dataphase,
640 F.2d at 114. However, when a party seeks “to enjoin a violation of the status quo
pending completion of the [RLA’s] required procedures,” a showing of irreparable injury
is not required. Consol. Rail Corp. v. Ry. Lab. Executives’ Ass’n, 491 U.S. 299, 303
(1989). It is also important to remember that “[n]o single factor is dispositive, as the
district court must balance all factors to determine whether the injunction should issue.”
Lankford v. Sherman, 451 F.3d 496, 503 (8th Cir. 2006); see also Dataphase, 640 F.2d
at 113 (“At base, the question is whether the balance of equities so favors the movant
that justice requires the court to intervene to preserve the status quo until the merits are
Plaintiffs argue that injunctive relief is necessary to reinstate and preserve the
status quo as they continue negotiating changes to the CBA with Iowa Northern pursuant
to the RLA. They assert that the negotiations initiated by their April 1, 2020, Section 6
notice are ongoing and that Iowa Northern therefore violated the RLA’s status quo
provisions when it changed pay rates and stopped collecting union fees on June 16, 2021.
They also assert that public interest favors an injunction, as it is in the public’s interest
to maintain the status quo during CBA negotiations to avoid disruptions to commerce.
Iowa Northern argues that its June 16 changes did not violate the RLA’s status
quo provisions because it was entitled to self-help due to plaintiffs’ failure to timely
respond to Iowa Northern’s May 4, 2021, Section 6 notice. It asserts that negotiation
conferences for plaintiffs’ Section 6 notice were terminated on March 25, 2021, when
plaintiffs’ representatives announced that they did not want to schedule another
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conference and plaintiffs thereafter failed to contact Iowa Northern about resuming
negotiations. Thus, when plaintiffs failed to seek mediation as to their own Section 6
notice in a timely manner, Iowa Northern’s subsequent Section 6 notice became the
controlling notice and plaintiffs’ failure to timely respond to that notice entitled Iowa
Northern to resort to self-help.
Further, Iowa Northern argues that even if the
conferences as to plaintiffs’ Section 6 notice were not terminated at the time Iowa
Northern filed its Section 6 notice, plaintiffs nonetheless had a duty under the RLA to
respond to Iowa Northern’s notice, such that their failure to do so entitled Iowa Northern
to resort to self-help.
As evinced by the parties’ arguments, plaintiffs’ likelihood of succeeding on the
merits depends primarily on (1) whether negotiation conferences on plaintiffs’ Section 6
notice were terminated and, even if they were not, (2) whether plaintiffs’ failure to timely
respond to Iowa Northern’s Section 6 notice allowed Iowa Northern to resort to self-help.
If plaintiffs terminated negotiations as to their own Section 6 notice, they are unlikely to
succeed on the merits because neither party sought mediation within 10 days of that
termination. If plaintiffs did not terminate negotiations as to their own Section 6 notice,
their likelihood of success depends on whether, or to what extent, plaintiffs had a duty to
respond to Iowa Northern’s subsequent Section 6 notice.
With regard to termination, the evidence of record demonstrates a clear factual
dispute as to whether plaintiffs terminated negotiations with regard to their Section 6
notice. In order to terminate conferences under the RLA and initiate the limitations
period for seeking mediation, a party’s termination must be “clear and unequivocal.”
See Great Lakes Aviation, Ltd. v. Int’l Ass’n of Machinists Air Transp. Dist. 143, No.
CIV 07-4314 PAM/JSM, 2007 WL 3244077, at *5 (D. Minn. Nov. 1, 2007); In re
Mesaba Aviation, Inc., 350 B.R. 112, 131 (Bankr. D. Minn. 2006), appeal dismissed
and remanded, No. CIV.06-4320(MJD), 2007 WL 978086 (D. Minn. Mar. 28, 2007);
United Transp. Union v. Del. & Hudson Ry. Co., 977 F. Supp. 570, 575 (N.D.N.Y.
Plaintiffs and Iowa Northern both blame each other for the abrupt end to
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negotiations on March 25, 2021. They also disagree about whether plaintiffs stated that
they did not wish to schedule another conference and to what extent the parties intended
and attempted to continue scheduling conferences as to plaintiffs’ Section 6 notice. Based
on the current record at this very early stage of this case, I cannot determine whether
plaintiffs clearly and unequivocally terminated negotiations. Because plaintiffs’ success
depends on their ability to show that they did not terminate negotiations as to their Section
6 notice, the uncertainty caused by this factual dispute weighs against granting a
preliminary injunction. See, e.g., Marshall Durbin Farms, Inc. v. Nat’l Farmers Org.,
Inc., 446 F.2d 353, 358 (5th Cir. 1971) (“[C]ourts are more cautious about invoking the
extraordinary remedy of the preliminary injunction where critical facts are in dispute.”).
Even if it was certain that plaintiffs did not terminate negotiations as to their own
Section 6 notice, plaintiffs’ likelihood of success on the merits is uncertain due to their
failure to timely respond to Iowa Northern’s May 4, 2021, Section 6 notice. Plaintiffs
argue that they had no duty to respond to that notice because negotiations as to their own
Section 6 notice were still in progress. They contend that Iowa Northern’s notice was a
mere counterproposal to be considered as part of ongoing negotiations, not an
independent notice under Section 6 that triggered new deadlines under the RLA.
The plain language of the RLA does not support this argument. Nothing in § 156
limits the number of Section 6 notices that may be filed by either party. See 45 U.S.C.
§ 156; Missouri-Illinois R. Co., 322 F.2d at 798 (finding that ongoing negotiations as to
one Section 6 notice do not preclude other notices addressing the same or similar issues
from being filed and that the subsequent notices may have independent effect). Indeed,
whenever a notice of intended changes is given, § 156 requires the parties to agree on a
time and place to meet within 10 days. 45 U.S.C. § 156. While the RLA demands that
both parties exert every reasonable effort to meet this requirement, plaintiffs – as the
recipients of Iowa Northern’s notice – had a duty to respond to the notice in some way.
See Ry. Lab. Executives’ Ass’n, 664 F. Supp. at 611 (finding that a railroad had a duty
under § 156 to respond to a union’s request for a conference on the railroad’s section 6
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notice outside of the statutorily proscribed period, even though it did not impose a duty
to accept such a request). There is no dispute that they failed to do so.
Plaintiffs’ likelihood of success on the merits thus comes down to whether their
failure to respond to Iowa Northern’s Section 6 notice allowed Iowa Northern to engage
in self-help. As noted above, there appears to be no dispute that Iowa Northern was
entitled to engage in self-help if negotiations had been terminated as to plaintiffs’ Section
6 notice. If negotiations were still ongoing when plaintiffs failed to timely respond to
Iowa Northern’s Section 6 notice, however, the situation is less clear. The parties have
not cited, nor have I found, any case law guidance on the issue. Thus, it appears to be
one of first impression.
As noted above, maintaining the status quo during negotiation procedures and the
ultimate right to resort to self-help are both important premises upon which the RLA is
based. See Bhd. of R.R. Trainmen, 394 U.S. at 378; Bhd. of Ry. & S.S. Clerks, Freight
Handlers, Exp. & Station Emp., AFL-CIO v. Fla. E. Coast Ry. Co., 384 U.S. 238, 244
(1966). Plaintiffs’ right to maintain the status quo under the RLA due to the possibility
that negotiations were still ongoing as to its own Section 6 notice does not so clearly
outweigh Iowa Northern’s right to engage in self-help that a preliminary injunction is
warranted, especially considering that the public interest generally weighs in favor of a
carrier’s right to self-help. See Fla. E. Coast Ry. Co., 384 U.S. at 244–45. Due to the
uncertainty created by the factual dispute discussed above, and plaintiffs’ failure to
establish with any clarity that Iowa Northern was not entitled to engage in self-help,
plaintiffs have failed to show that they are likely to succeed on the merits. They have
also failed to show that other Dataphase factors weigh in favor of a preliminary
injunction. Injunctive relief is an extraordinary remedy that plaintiffs have not shown to
be appropriate under these circumstances. As such, their motion must be denied.
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For the foregoing reasons, plaintiffs’ motion (Doc. 7) for a temporary restraining
order and preliminary injunction is denied.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
DATED this 19th day of July, 2021.
Leonard T. Strand, Chief Judge
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