Seventh Circuit Rules against Chicago Union in Illegal Slowdown Case

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held Mar. 14 that U.S. Dist. Judge William J. Hibbler erred in refusing to issue a preliminary injunction to compel the Int’l Ass’n of Machinists to discourage its member mechanics from engaging in a work slowdown at United Air Lines. The appeals court remanded the case with instructions to enter a preliminary injunction against IAM Dist. Lodge 141-M and to quickly hold a trial on whether to grant a permanent injunction.

On remand, Hibbler granted UAL a preliminary injunction Mar. 22, barring IAM mechanics from engaging in a work slowdown. The preliminary injunction will remain in effect while Hibbler considers UAL’s petition for a permanent injunction.

UAL claimed that IAM, frustrated with the pace of bargaining contract negotiations, orchestrated an illegal work slowdown by approximately 15,000 mechanics, resulting in hundreds of canceled and delayed flights since the alleged slowdown began last summer.

Hibbler granted UAL’s request for a temporary restraining order on Nov. 17, 2000. However, he lifted it on Dec. 7, finding the slowdown activity had dissipated and some of the activity was beyond IAM’s control. Hibbler later denied UAL’s request for a preliminary injunction, saying UAL could more effectively deal with the slowdown by disciplining individual mechanics. He also denied UAL’s motion to hold IAM in contempt for not fully complying with the TRO.

The appeals court decided Hibbler “misapplied the law” by basing his decision to deny a preliminary injunction on a finding that management disciplinary action would be more effective. There was evidence that some mechanics were engaging in a slowdown in violation of the RLA and IAM was involved, the Seventh Circuit found. Circuit Judge William J. Bauer wrote:”[U]nder these circumstances a court may issue an injunction against a union as the ‘sole, effective means’ of forcing the union to observe its obligations under the RLA’s status quo provisions, and a carrier’s efforts to solve the problem through management are no substitute for judicial enforcement of the union’s independent obligations.”

IAM spokesman Frank Larkin said IAM plans to seek an en banc review and blasted the Seventh Circuit decision: “We believe the [three-judge panel] misapplied the law.”

Andy Studdert, UAL’s COO and executive vice president, said”Those who have engaged in illegal job actions have been given a clear signal by the court that this type of activity is unacceptable.”

Bauer found UAL’s statistical evidence showed increases in the number of maintenance “write-ups” calling for inspection or repair, more frequent scheduled maintenance checks, more aircraft held out of service for unscheduled maintenance, and increases in flights delayed or cancelled due to mechanical problems. Maintenance base managers testified that mechanics spent excessive amounts of time consulting manuals, refused to work voluntary overtime, waited until just before flight time to report maintenance problems, and wrote up merely cosmetic problems that normally would be ignored.

Bauer noted that in early Oct. 2000, Lodge 141-M sent a bulletin stressing the importance of complying with federal aviation regulations by making sure that each aircraft was in fully airworthy condition before being returned to service. The bulletin stated that dock personnel, not just higher-ranking team leaders and lead mechanics, could and should generate write-ups. “If you find something wrong on an aircraft, ACTION MUST BE TAKEN!” the bulletin said. Subsequent bulletins and memos reported that negotiations were not going well and urged mechanics to “work safe,” which UAL maintenance officials testified was a coded reference to a work slowdown. UAL also submitted a number of leaflets, flyers, and Web site messages encouraging slowdown activities that allegedly were distributed in maintenance facilities. [BNA 3/16, 3/26/01, citing United Air Lines Inc. v. IAM].