In Time For Black Friday, Judge Issues Restraining Order Against Striking Pilots At Amazon-Backed Cargo Line

Image courtesy of Louis Abate

About 40 hours after pilots at Amazon-backed cargo airline ABX went on strike, threatening to throw a wrench in the holiday shipping plans of the country’s largest online retailer (and others), a federal judge has granted a temporary restraining order against the striking pilots.

ABX may not have the household name recognition that FedEx or UPS does, but its air cargo operations are vital to Amazon. In addition to the 35 dedicated Amazon flights ABX flies every day, the retailer recently purchased a minority ownership stake in ABX’s parent company ATSG.

The ABX pilots — represented by Teamsters Local 1224 — had approved a potential strike back in May, claiming that the airline has been understaffed for nearly two years and that ABX had refused to hire back previously furloughed pilots because they would have had to be paid at the top of the wage scale. Instead, said the union, ABX hired a small number of less-expensive, less-experienced pilots.

Following the strike, ABX sued the union in federal court and sought an immediate injunction in the hopes of getting the planes back up in the air.

Stopping a nonviolent strike by a labor union isn’t simple. The Norris-La Guardia Act generally prohibits federal courts from granting injunctions in cases “involving or growing out of a labor dispute,” but the law does spell out certain conditions that might allow a judge to grant an injunction request.

The union argued that, according to the law, an injunction can only be issued after the court has heard witness testimony at a full evidentiary hearing in open court, but ABX countered that this same section of the law does indeed allow for granting an injunction before such a hearing if a “substantial and irreparable injury to complainant’s property will be unavoidable.”

ABX pointed to a 2001 federal appeals court ruling in a dispute between Delta and its pilot union, where the court clarified that a live hearing with real humans may not be needed to decide on an injunction when most of the facts involved are not disputed.

“The same is true in this case,” wrote ABX in its brief in support of the injunction. “Defendants do not dispute the facts set forth in ABX’s verified complaint — they only contest the legal interpretation of the parties’ collective bargaining agreement… an evidentiary hearing will not do anything to further advance the analysis,” while “waiting to hold such a hearing will undoubtedly cause continued ‘substantial and irreparable injury’ to ABX and to interstate commerce, generally.”

The union took issue with ABX’s insistence that an injunction would preserve the status quo, arguing that the pilot union’s “sole purpose in initiating the strike is to restore the status quo; Local 1224 has made clear that the strike will cease when the Company resumes compliance with the terms of the collective bargaining agreement and the status quo.”

As for the airline’s argument that a strike would disrupt ABX’s operations and interstate commerce in general, the union agreed, but pointed out this sort of disruption “is the very nature of a strike,” and that the court shouldn’t be considering a strike’s negative impact on the employer when deciding whether or not to grant an injunction.

In the end, the judge did agree to hold a brief evidentiary hearing at 3:30 in the afternoon on Wednesday, delaying him from reaching a decision until the early evening hours on the night before Thanksgiving.

“This work stoppage has interrupted interstate commerce by causing the cancellation of at least 26 ABX flights and the stranding at least 1.25 million pounds of cargo for one ABX customer, and even more for other customers,” wrote the judge in his order granting the injunction [PDF].

The union has contended that its strike is legal under the Railroad Labor Act, a 90-year-old law that governs when and how railroad and airline employees can strike.

That law requires that all parties “make every reasonable effort to negotiate a settlement and to refrain from altering the status quo.” Additionally, courts have held that there are two sorts of disputes to be settled under the RLA: Major disputes that involves matters that have not been resolved in a collective bargaining agreement or where no such agreement exists; and minor disputes that involve fights over existing collective bargaining agreements.

“This is a minor dispute because it arises out of the interpretation of an existing CBA, and Plaintiff has not changed the terms of the CBA,” explains Judge Timothy Black. Minor disputes are generally to be resolved through arbitration between the employer and the union, said the judge.

“The public expects that purchases and shipments will be delivered in a timely fashion,” he adds. “Accordingly, there is a significant public interest in enjoining Defendants’ strike. Absent an injunction, ABX, its customers, and the public will suffer immediate, irreparable harm. Imagine Christmas without Amazon!”

The judge did conclude, over ABX’s objections, that the airline must put up a bond of $475,000 — a sufficient amount to cover the union’s attorney’s fees, expenses of defense, along with associated costs and damages.

With the judges order, the ABX pilots can no longer legally strike. If the union members comply with the order, that should get the flights carrying cargo for Amazon and others back on track.

A rep for the union tells Consumerist that pilots are indeed going back to work at ABX, though the union intends to continue fighting ABX over their labor dispute.

“As professional pilots, we’re committed to serving our customers with integrity, and we simply want ABX executives to treat us with the same respect,” said Rick Ziebarth, ABX pilot and Executive Council Chairman, Teamsters Local 1224, in a statement. “ABX Air’s failure to address the staffing crisis hurts our families and compromises our ability to do our jobs and meet the needs of Amazon, DHL and other customers. We do not agree with the Judge’s decision to keep us from striking, as we believe the company’s actions represent a clear violation of the status quo as outlined by Railway Labor Act. Rather than spend more time in court, what we’d really like is for ABX to stop the ’emergency’ assignments and take real steps to hire and retain the number of skilled pilots we need to keep up with our customers.”

ABX President John Starkovich applauded today’s ruling.

“I am pleased that the court continues to recognize the value to all parties from continuing to work out remaining differences in negotiations and through arbitration,” Starkovich said. “We intend to resume those discussions at the appropriate time and place in order to find solutions that are in the best interests of our customers, shareholders and employees.”

In a statement emailed to Consumerist, a rep for Amazon downplays the impact of the strike and the injunction.

“We rebalanced capacity across our network of carrier partners to ensure there are no disruptions through the busy holiday weekend,” says the rep, “and plan to leave these adjustments in place.”

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