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decided: June 19, 1989.



Blackmun, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and White, Stevens, O'Connor, Scalia, and Kennedy, JJ., joined. White, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 320. Brennan, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Marshall, J., joined, post, p. 321.

Author: Blackmun

[ 491 U.S. Page 300]

 JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, we must examine the concepts of "major" and "minor" disputes in the area of railway labor relations, articulate a standard for differentiating between the two, and apply that standard to a drug-testing dispute.


Since its formation in 1976, petitioner Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail), has required its employees to undergo physical examinations periodically and upon return from leave. These examinations include the testing of urine for blood sugar and albumin and, in some circumstances, for drugs. On February 20, 1987, Conrail announced unilaterally that urinalysis drug screening would be included henceforth as part of all periodic and return-from-leave physical examinations. Respondent Railway Labor Executives' Association (the Union), an unincorporated association of chief executive officers of 19 labor organizations which collectively represent Conrail's employees, opposes this unilateral drug-testing addition.*fn1

[ 491 U.S. Page 301]

     The parties agree that Conrail's inclusion of drug testing in all physical examinations has created a labor dispute the resolution of which is governed by the Railway Labor Act (RLA), 44 Stat. 577, as amended, 45 U. S. C. § 151 et seq.*fn2 The question presented by this case is what kind of labor dispute we have before us: whether Conrail's addition of a drug screen to the urinalysis component of its required periodic and return-to-duty medical examinations gives rise to a "major" or a "minor" dispute under the RLA.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania agreed with Conrail that this case involves a minor dispute, because Conrail's policy of conducting physical examinations, which the parties agree is an implied term of their collective-bargaining agreement, arguably gave Conrail the discretion to include drug testing in all physical examinations. The Third Circuit reversed, ruling that "the undisputed terms of the implied agreement governing medical examinations cannot be plausibly interpreted to justify the new testing program." 845 F.2d 1187, 1193 (1988). Although we find the question to be a close one, we agree with the District Court, and with those Courts of Appeals that have held, on similar facts, that disputes concerning the addition of a drug-testing component to routine physical examinations are minor disputes. See, e. g., Railway Labor Executives Assn. v. Norfolk & Western R. Co., 833 F.2d 700, 705-706 (CA7 1987); Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, Lodge 16 v. Burlington Northern R. Co., 802 F.2d 1016, 1024 (CA8 1986).

[ 491 U.S. Page 302]


This Court has not articulated an explicit standard for differentiating between major and minor disputes. It adopted the major/minor terminology, drawn from the vocabulary of rail management and rail labor, as a shorthand method of describing two classes of controversy Congress had distinguished in the RLA: major disputes seek to create contractual rights, minor disputes to enforce them. Elgin, J. & E. R. Co. v. Burley, 325 U.S. 711, 723 (1945).

The statutory bases for the major dispute category are § 2 Seventh and § 6 of the RLA, 48 Stat. 1188, 1197, 45 U. S. C. § 152 Seventh and § 156. The former states that no carrier "shall change the rates of pay, rules, or working conditions of its employees, as a class, as embodied in agreements except in the manner prescribed in such agreements" or through the mediation procedures established in § 6. This statutory category

"relates to disputes over the formation of collective agreements or efforts to secure them. They arise where there is no such agreement or where it is sought to change the terms of one, and therefore the issue is not whether an existing agreement controls the controversy. They look to the acquisition of rights for the future, not to assertion of rights claimed to have vested in the past." Burley, 325 U.S., at 723.

In the event of a major dispute, the RLA requires the parties to undergo a lengthy process of bargaining and mediation.*fn3 §§ 5 and 6. Until they have exhausted those procedures, the parties are obligated to maintain the status quo,

[ 491 U.S. Page 303]

     and the employer may not implement the contested change in rates of pay, rules, or working conditions. The district courts have subject-matter jurisdiction to enjoin a violation of the status quo pending completion of the required procedures, without the customary showing of irreparable injury. See Detroit & T. S. L. R. Co. v. Transportation Union, 396 U.S. 142 (1969) (upholding status quo injunction without discussing equitable constraints); Division No. 1, Detroit, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 844 F.2d 1218 (CA6 1988). Once this protracted process ends and no agreement has been reached, the parties may resort to the use of economic force.

In contrast, the minor dispute category is predicated on § 2 Sixth and § 3 First (i) of the RLA, which set forth conference and compulsory arbitration procedures for a dispute arising or growing "out of grievances or out of the interpretation or application of agreements concerning rates of pay, rules, or working conditions." This second category of disputes

"contemplates the existence of a collective agreement already concluded or, at any rate, a situation in which no effort is made to bring about a formal change in terms or to create a new one. The dispute relates either to the meaning or proper application of a particular provision with reference to a specific situation or to an omitted case. In the latter event the claim is founded upon some incident of the employment relation, or asserted one, independent of those covered by the collective agreement, e. g., claims on account of personal injuries. In either case the claim is to rights accrued, not merely to have new ones created for the future." Burley, 325 U.S., at 723.

A minor dispute in the railroad industry is subject to compulsory and binding arbitration before the National Railroad Adjustment Board, § 3, or before an adjustment board established by the employer and the unions representing the employees.

[ 491 U.S. Page 304]

     § 3 Second.*fn4 The Board (as we shall refer to any adjustment board under the RLA) has exclusive jurisdiction over minor disputes. Judicial review of the arbitral decision is limited. See § 3 First (q); Union Pacific R. Co. v. Sheehan, 439 U.S. 89, 93 (1978). Courts may enjoin strikes arising out of minor disputes. Trainmen v. Chicago R. & I. R. Co., 353 U.S. 30 (1957). Although courts in some circumstances may condition the granting of a strike injunction on a requirement that the employer maintain the status quo pending Board resolution of the dispute, see Locomotive Engineers v. Missouri-K.-T. R. Co., 363 U.S. 528, 534 (1960), this Court never has recognized a general statutory obligation on the part of an employer to maintain the status quo pending the Board's decision. Cf. id., at 531, n. 3 (leaving open the question whether a federal court can require an employer to maintain the status quo during the pendency of a minor dispute at the union's independent behest, where no strike injunction has been sought by the employer).*fn5

[ 491 U.S. Page 305]

     Although experience in the rail industry suggested to Congress that the second category of disputes involved "comparatively minor" issues that seldom led to strikes, the Court recognized in Burley that this was not invariably the case. See 325 U.S., at 724; see also Trainmen, supra. Thus, the formal demarcation between major and minor disputes does not turn on a case-by-case determination of the importance of the issue presented or the likelihood that it would prompt the exercise of economic self-help. See National Railway Labor Conference v. International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, 830 F.2d 741, 747, n. 5 (CA7 1987). Rather, the line drawn in Burley looks to whether a claim has been made that the terms of an existing agreement either establish or refute the presence of a right to take the disputed action. The distinguishing feature of such a case is that the dispute may be conclusively resolved by interpreting the existing agreement. See Garrison, The National Railroad Adjustment Board: A Unique Administrative Agency, 46 Yale L. J. 567, 568, 576 (1937).

To an extent, then, the distinction between major and minor disputes is a matter of pleading. The party who initiates a dispute takes the first step toward categorizing the dispute when it chooses whether to assert an existing contractual right to take or to resist the action in question. But

[ 491 U.S. Page 306]

     the Courts of Appeals early recognized that there is a danger in leaving the characterization of the dispute solely in the hands of one party. In a situation in which the party asserting a contractual basis for its claim is "insincere" in so doing, or its "position [is] founded upon . . . insubstantial grounds," the result of honoring that party's characterization would be to undercut "the prohibitions of § 2, Seventh, and § 6 of the Act" against unilateral imposition of new contractual terms. Norfolk & Portsmouth Belt Line R. Co. v. Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, Lodge No. 514, 248 F.2d 34, 43-44, n. 4 (CA4 1957), cert. denied, 355 U.S. 914 (1958); see also United Industrial Workers of Seafarers Int'l Union, AFL-CIO v. Board of Trustees of Galveston Wharves, 351 F.2d 183, 188-189 (CA5 1965). In such circumstances, protection of the proper functioning of the statutory scheme requires the court to substitute its characterization for that of the claimant.

To satisfy this need for some degree of judicial control, the Courts of Appeals uniformly have established some variant of the standard employed by the Third Circuit in this case:

"'[I]f the disputed action of one of the parties can "arguably" be justified by the existing agreement or, in somewhat different statement, if the contention that the labor contract sanctions the disputed action is not "obviously insubstantial," the controversy is a [minor dispute] within the exclusive province of the National Railroad Adjustment Board.'" 845 F.2d, at ...

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