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Atlas Air, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

July 5, 2019

Atlas Air, Inc. and Polar Air Cargo Worldwide, Inc., Appellees
International Brotherhood of Teamsters, et al., Appellants

          Argued September 7, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:17-cv-01953)

          Edward M. Gleason, Jr. argued the cause for appellants. With him on the briefs were James Petroff and Trent R. Taylor. Joshua D. McInerney entered an appearance.

          Robert A. Siegel argued the cause for appellees. With him on the brief were Rachel Janger, Michael G. McGuinness, and Sloane Ackerman.

          Before: Griffith, Circuit Judge, and Edwards and Randolph, Senior Circuit Judges.


          Griffith, Circuit Judge.

         The district court issued a preliminary injunction enjoining a union's efforts to gain leverage over two commercial air carriers during negotiations over an amended collective bargaining agreement. Congress permits courts to issue such injunctions in rare circumstances. Because this is one of them, we affirm.


         Atlas Air, Inc. and Polar Air Cargo Worldwide, Inc. (collectively, "Atlas") are global commercial air carriers that operate domestic and intercontinental flights for the U.S. military, DHL, and Amazon, among others. Atlas's pilots are represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Airline Division; and the Airline Professionals Association of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local Union No. 1224. We refer to them collectively as the "Union."

         In 2011, after a protracted negotiation process, the Union and Atlas entered into a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The CBA prohibits the Union from engaging in a work stoppage or slowdown and permits Atlas to seek an injunction if the Union does so. The CBA also creates a process to resolve any "grievance[s]" that Atlas has over the "interpretation or application" of its provisions. Defs.' Ex. 1 at 126-27, No. 17-cv-1953 (D.D.C. Nov. 30, 2017), Dkt. No. 31-1.

         Since entering the CBA, Atlas's business model and staffing demands have changed significantly because of the rapid expansion of e-commerce. In the past, most of Atlas's business was international. Of late, the company's focus has shifted to a growing domestic market. The Union tried to work "collaboratively with Atlas" to alleviate the growing pains caused by this change rather than holding the company "accountable" to the precise terms of the CBA. J.A. 172-73. But as domestic operations expanded, pilots' frustrations increased. In 2014, the pilots elected a new Chairman of the Atlas Pilots' Executive Committee, the body through which the Union manages day-to-day representation of the pilots. Captain Robert Kirchner ran on a platform calling for "strict contract compliance." J.A. 173. As he explained, if Atlas is "allowed to bend and violate the terms of the [CBA] when it suits them, [the company] will have no reason to negotiate changes to the [CBA]" when it becomes amendable. Id. When he assumed the role of Chairman in January 2015, Captain Kirchner launched several communication tools to help educate pilots about their rights and responsibilities under the CBA: "Atlas Teamsters Action Message" podcasts (ATAM), "Atlas Pilots Crew Call" question and answer sessions, "Chairman's Update" emails, and "CBA Chat" videos.

         On February 16, 2016, about one year after Captain Kirchner took office, the Union notified Atlas that it would seek to amend the existing CBA. Around that same time, the Executive Committee's communications efforts picked up steam. The day before the Union issued that notice, the Communications Chairman, Captain Michael Griffith, asked rhetorically on an ATAM, "Are you going to continue[] to sell your talents for a quick buck, or are you going to stop doing the Company favors and follow the CBA to the letter and give your [Executive Committee] and Negotiation Committee the leverage and power they need today?" J.A. 638. Over the coming months, the Union repeatedly called on pilots to be "all in," "fly the CBA," and "fly the contract." E.g., J.A. 631, 650; Pls.' Ex. 51 at 3, No. 17-cv-1953 (D.D.C. Nov. 30, 2017), Dkt. No. 5-54; Pls.' Ex. 100 at 54, No. 17-cv-1953 (D.D.C. Nov. 30, 2017), Dkt. No. 27-4. It encouraged pilots to "SHOP," or "stop helping out Purchase," named for the location of Atlas's headquarters in Purchase, New York. E.g., J.A. 640. According to Captain Kirchner, "SHOP" or "shopping" refers to the idea that pilots should not "help out" Atlas "by permitting [it] to get away with contract violations," but should instead insist on "strict contract compliance." J.A. 178. The Union asked pilots to "BOOT," which stands for "block out on time." E.g., J.A. 652. By contrast, Atlas encourages pilots to "block out"-i.e., push back from the gate-up to fifteen minutes early as a matter of course, or even earlier with Atlas's approval. The Executive Committee also encouraged pilots to think more carefully about when to call in sick or accept overtime work.

         Atlas was unhappy with these efforts and the changes it began to see in pilots' behavior. Atlas viewed SHOP and BOOT as part of a Union attempt to orchestrate a work slowdown in an attempt to ratchet up pressure on Atlas during their negotiations over an amended CBA. When Atlas could not convince the Union to stop this behavior, the company asked the district court for an injunction. The Union disputed Atlas's allegations and moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. After a three-day evidentiary hearing, the district court determined that it had jurisdiction and entered a preliminary injunction to prevent the Union from encouraging pilots to "block out on time," call in sick on short notice, and refuse to volunteer for overtime shifts. Atlas Air, Inc. v. Int'l Bhd. of Teamsters, 280 F.Supp.3d 59 (D.D.C. 2017). The Union appealed. We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(a)(1) and 29 U.S.C. § 110.


         We begin by asking whether the district court had jurisdiction to issue this type of preliminary injunction. Our review is de novo. Foretich v. Am. Broad. Cos., 198 F.3d 270, 273 (D.C. Cir. 1999). To answer that question, we look to the Railway Labor Act and the Norris-LaGuardia Act.


         In the Railway Labor Act (RLA), 45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq., Congress established different procedures to resolve two types of labor disputes in the transportation industry, which we refer to as major and minor disputes. Consol. Rail Corp. v. Ry. Labor Execs.' Ass'n (Conrail), 491 U.S. 299, 302 (1989). A major dispute concerns the formation or amendment of a collective bargaining agreement. Id. The process for resolving a major dispute is complex and typically takes a long time. Only once that process is complete may the company or the union alter the status quo by engaging in a work slowdown or stoppage. Bhd. of R.R. Trainmen v. Jacksonville Terminal Co., 394 U.S. 369, 378 (1969). Delaying the time at which labor or management may use economic self-help encourages compromise and prevents interruptions to commerce or carriers' operations. Id.; Detroit & Toledo Shore Line R.R. Co. v. United Transp. Union, 396 U.S. 142, 149-50 (1969); see 45 U.S.C. § 152, First. The status quo requirement is thus at the "heart" of the RLA, and may be enforced by injunction. Jacksonville Terminal, 378 U.S. at 377-78; see 45 U.S.C. § 152, First; Conrail, 491 U.S. at 302-03.

         By contrast, a minor dispute involves a question about how to interpret an existing collective bargaining agreement, like the meaning of a term or whether the agreement permits a certain action. Elgin, J. & E. Ry. Co. v. Burley, 325 U.S. 711, 723 (1945). As long as the contested "action is arguably justified by the terms of the parties' collective-bargaining agreement," we treat the dispute as minor. Conrail, 491 U.S. at 307; Air Line Pilots Ass'n, Int'l v. E. Air Lines, Inc. (Eastern), 869 F.2d 1518, 1521 (D.C. Cir. 1989). The resolution process for a minor dispute is less involved, and there is no "general statutory obligation . . . to maintain the status quo" while that process is ongoing. Conrail, 491 U.S. at 304. So although "[c]ourts may enjoin strikes arising out of minor disputes" in limited circumstances, they generally may not enjoin other violations of the status quo. Id. If in doubt, the dispute is minor. Eastern, 869 F.2d at 1521.

         Labor disputes are also subject to the Norris-LaGuardia Act (NLGA), 29 U.S.C. § 101 et seq., which Congress enacted in response to concerns that federal courts were using their injunctive power too often to the detriment of workers. Bhd. of R.R. Trainmen v. Chi. River & Ind. R.R. Co., 353 U.S. 30, 40 (1957). To curtail such judicial interference, Congress stripped federal courts of "jurisdiction to issue any . . . temporary or permanent injunction in a case involving or growing out of a labor dispute, except in . . . strict conformity" with various procedural requirements. 29 U.S.C. § 101. The NLGA also categorically eliminates jurisdiction to enjoin certain types of conduct in "any labor dispute," including work stoppages and slowdowns. Id. § 104.

         We cannot have jurisdiction to enjoin slowdowns or work stoppages in major labor disputes in the transportation industry, see 45 U.S.C. § 152, yet at the same time lack jurisdiction to enjoin such conduct in "any labor dispute," 29 U.S.C. § 104. More than 50 years ago, the Supreme Court resolved this conflict by holding that "the specific provisions of the [RLA] take precedence." Chi. River, 353 U.S. at 41-42, 41 n.23. Courts therefore have jurisdiction to issue injunctions to preserve the status quo in major disputes in the transportation industry, Conrail, 491 U.S. at 302-03, but in keeping with the goals of the NLGA, they should only do so if "that remedy alone can effectively guard the plaintiff's right[s]," Int'l Ass'n of Machinists v. Street, 367 U.S. 740, 773 (1961). In order to verify that such an RLA injunction is indeed essential, courts must generally comply with the procedures set forth in the NLGA before issuing RLA injunctions. See 29 U.S.C. ยงยง 101, ...

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