When rail labor works together, good things happen. Case in point: a critical meeting last September 15th with the Department of Labor regarding the true meaning of "election of remedies" under the Federal Rail Safety Act (FRSA) is now bearing fruit.
In early September, the DOL appeared headed toward accepting rail management’s argument that an employee’s participation in the Railway Labor Act (RLA) process constitutes an irrevocable "election of remedies" barring the employee from the protections of the FRSA. However, the DOL asked to hear rail labor’s point of view, and invited a few rail labor attorneys to attend a September 15th summit to discuss the issue.
As the attorney who first weighed in on this issue and was set to try the first FRSA cases in November, the DOL asked me to attend. What happened next illustrates the power of working together. BMWED Director of Safety Rick Inclima and St. Paul rail labor attorney Charlie Collins reached out to the invitees, urging us to coordinate our efforts for maximum effect and offering the IBT’s Headquarters as a location for us to meet beforehand. And coordinate we did. In addition to Rick and Charlie, Jim Farina and Steve Garmisa showed up from Hoey & Farina in Chicago, as did San Diego rail labor atorney Harry Zanville and UTU Associate General Counsel Kevin Brodar from Cleveland.
We put our heads together. Our challenge was to convince the DOL that the FRSA and the RLA exist on separate parallel tracks with neither one excluding the other. To do that, we had to explain the very real practical differences between the RLA process and the whistleblower protections of the FRSA. It was agreed I would kick off the discussion, and that afternoon we met with high level personnel from the DOL’s Solicitor General Office and Directorate of Enforcement Programs.
We had an intense back and forth for over two hours. I opened it up by pointing out that the purpose of the FRSA is to change rail management’s culture of retaliation, and the way to do that is to allow the FRSA to operate independently of the RLA. By the end of the meeting I believe we were able to open up DOL’s eyes to the fact that RLA proceedings simply do not address or remedy whistleblower retaliation, and that the interpretation sought by rail management would eviscerate the FRSA and return us to the unacceptable status quo before Congress enacted the FRSA.
Now it appears our efforts are bearing fruit. The DOL’s Assistant Secretary for OSHA just asked to file an amicus appeal brief with the Administrative Review Board on the issue of "election of remedies," and the BMWED put out a Press Release noting the tide has turned. The sense we are getting is that OSHA now is directing its Whistleblower investigators to conduct their FRSA investigations regardless of any RLA proceedings. And so, thanks to the cooperative efforts of rail labor, the FRSA and RLA will forever operate on separate parallel tracks, where they belong.
BMWED President Freddie Simpson said it best in his Press Release: "Railroads will no longer be able to retaliate against railroad employees who report injuries and safety violations with impunity. This is a substantial victory for all of Rail Labor and every rail worker nationwide, and I am proud that BMWED led the way to this important victory." And to that I can only add, "Amend brother!"