This entry honors the memory of Roger M. Lenfest, Jr., a courageous rail labor leader who has left us too soon. Roger’s railroad career spanned 40 years, most recently as a United Transportation Union General Chairman representing conductors on various carriers. But Roger’s defining moment as a union rep came in 1985, when he was General Chairman for the conductors on the Boston commuter lines operated by Tim Mellon’s B & M Railroad.
Roger raised a safety issue about the lack of flagmen at construction sites on the mainline, and the B & M Railroad responded by firing one of his local chairman. The next morning, on November 4, 1985, Roger shut down the commuter rail service for the Boston region by ordering an unprecedented system-wide refusal to work under hazardous conditions. The B & M immediately obtained a temporary restraining order from the United States District Court in Boston ordering all employees back to work. The Railroad then fired all of Roger’s local chairmen and placed liens on their homes for millions of dollars in civil damages.
The trial judge ruled for the Railroad, but Roger kept the faith, and on September 2, 1986 the First Circuit Court of Appeals decided the first case ever under the original Federal Rail Safety Act when it issued a landmark decision overturning the trial judge and ruling that Roger’s action was not an illegal strike but rather a refusal to work under hazardous conditions protected by the Federal Railroad Safety Act. B & M Corp. vs. Lenfest, et al., 799 F.2d 795 (1st Cir. 1986). We forced the Railroad to immediately reinstate Roger’s local chairmen and withdraw the liens on their homes. Roger then went on to win over $400,000 in back wages for his local chairmen in arbitration.
Here are the words from the Circuit Court decision establishing "the Lenfest principle":
To hold that union leaders can call for a concerted work stoppage only at the risk of being found liable for instigating an illegal strike is to place them in the position of having to choose between their own welfare and the lives of the employees. This is contrary to what Congress intended. We hold that where hazardous working conditions are the result of a system-wide failure to provide adequate protection so that employees are in danger of death or serious injury without knowing it, and the Union is aware of such danger, the Union may call a concerted work stoppage under the FRSA to protect the lives and safety of the employees.
The Railroad petitioned the United States Supreme Court for an appeal, but the Supreme Court refused, thus keeping the Lenfest decision in place as the law of the land. For the last 25 years Lenfest has stood as the leading case on the right of railroad workers to refuse to work under hazardous conditions.
Roger passed away last week at the age of 65. He will be missed, but never forgotten. Those of us who knew him can take some comfort in the fact that, although his voice will no longer be heard, the legacy of his fearlessness and vision will live on.