Ohio Dissents Halt Union Merge

U.S. Dist. Judge Ann Aldrich (N.D. Ohio, Carter) recently halted the long-running merger campaign between the Bhd. of Locomotive Eng’rs and United Transp. Union. Aldrich  impounded the merger ballots after finding violations of the Labor Mgmt. Reporting & Disclosure Act, popularly known as the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959, in the way the a referendum on the merger was conducted. Aldrich agreed with three BLE members who contended that BLE’s failure to provide adequate information before the balloting and separate counts of Canadian and U.S. members’ ballots
violated LMRDA.

Reportedly, newly elected BLE president Don Hahs reported to the union’s Cleveland headquarters on Oct. 3, beginning his term with the question of the merger high on his agenda. Hahs was elected Sept. 28 during BLE’s convention in Miami Beach.

Attorney Arthur Fox, who represented the three BLE members who challenged the voting process, said that if the union agrees to abide by Aldrich’s ruling, the parties will agree to destroy the ballots cast by BLE and UTU members between mid-Aug. and mid-Sept. If BLE decides to contest the preliminary injunction and findings of LMRDA violations, the court would schedule hearings on the issues, Fox said. A third option would be to throw out the ballots and hold another merger referendum that follows the court’s findings, he said. Fox is with the Washington, D.C., law firm Lobel, Novins & Lamont.

Officials of BLE and UTU announced in late July that they were ready to put the merger question to a vote of members, with a goal of implementing the unification plans by Jan. 1, 2002. Merger talks had resumed in June after they abruptly ended two years earlier when BLE pulled out of negotiations. Long rivals in representation elections among freight railroad employees, the unions recently have been at odds over whether those operating locomotives should be in a single class or craft or in two distinct collective bargaining groups as has typically been the case.

Finding in favor of the three dissident BLE members, Aldrich granted a preliminary injunction impounding the merger referendum ballots based on “a substantial likelihood” that the plaintiffs would prevail in their claims of LMRDA violations. The dissidents would “suffer irreparable harm if the final vote count were announced,” Aldrich said. She instructed the Am. Arbitration Ass’n to impound the ballots and to refrain from counting them until the dispute is resolved.

Aldrich found “substantial likelihood” of finding violations of LMRDA related to the way the referendum was conducted. First, the court said that BLE members were denied information on the proposed merger, especially from opponents of the plan, to the extent that they were “deprived of information necessary to cast a meaningful vote.”  Shortly before the ballots and copies of the unification agreement were scheduled to be mailed to BLE and UTU members, the dissidents asked BLE for additional time to prepare documents arguing against the merger. According Aldrich, BLE officials denied the request to delay the mailing and sent ballots and more than 100 pages of material, including letters from presidents of both unions urging approval.  “The plaintiffs have shown a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their claims that the BLE’s refusal to delay sending the ballots altered the mix of information available to many BLE members at the time they voted, depriving them of information necessary to cast a meaningful vote,” Aldrich said.

Aldrich also agreed with the dissidents that there was “sufficient evidence that the Canadian BLE leadership was consistently skeptical of the merger, that this fact was generally well known, and that the Canadian leadership ultimately passed a resolution to recommend that the membership vote no.”  Aldrich said she  “was troubled by the fact that the choice to count the Canadian BLE votes separately appears to have been based specifically on the expectation that the Canadian members would overwhelmingly vote against a merger. In this case, then, there is substantial evidence that there is a well-defined group of voters who could be disadvantaged by this arrangement: American BLE members opposing the merger.”  [BNA 10/5/01]