Burlington Northern Railroad Company v. Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes

PETITIONER:Burlington Northern Railroad Co., et al.
RESPONDENT:Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, et al.
LOCATION: United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division

DOCKET NO.: 86-39
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-1987)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 481 US 429 (1987)
ARGUED: Feb 23, 1987
DECIDED: Apr 28, 1987
GRANTED: Oct 06, 1986

John B. O’Clarke, Jr. – on behalf of the respondents
Rex E. Lee – on behalf of the petitioners

Facts of the case

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE) is a union that represents railroad workers across the country, specifically the employees of Maine Central Railroad, a subsidiary of Guilford Transportation Industries (Guilford). After Guilford acquired Maine Central in 1981, Maine Central had to lay off 300 of the 400 employees that BMWE represented. The collective bargaining agreement between the two expired in 1984, before the parties were able to reach a satisfactory new agreement. For the following year, the parties attempted to reach a settlement using the procedures set out by the Railroad Labor Act (RLA), but they exhausted those options. On March 3, 1986, BMWE began a strike against Maine Central that expanded to encompass the other Guilford subsidiaries. Upon receiving information that other railroad companies were assisting Guilford, BMWE began picketing other railroads’ lines. On April 9, Burlington Northern Railroad Company sought and received a temporary restraining order from the district court to stop the picketing. Six other railroad companies filed petitions in the same court and received temporary restraining orders on April 11. On April 23, the district court consolidated the cases entered a preliminary injunction against BMWE.

The Court of Appeals reversed based on the understanding that the Norris-LaGuardia Act prevents the use of injunctions to halt labor dispute protests. The Court of Appeals concluded that the district court did not have the jurisdiction to enter the injunction and ordered it to dismiss the petitioners’ claims.

While these judicial procedures were pending, on May 16, 1986, the President issued Executive Order No. 12557, which convened an emergency board to investigate the dispute and report back to the President after 30 days. During that period the parties had to maintain the status quo that existed before the dispute. Congress also convened an advisory board that recommended that Congress enact legislation that would bind the parties to the recommendation of the President’s emergency board. Congress did so, and the President signed it into law.


Does the Norris-LaGuardia Act allow federal courts to issue an injunction on labor dispute activities that do not involve the primary actors?

Media for Burlington Northern Railroad Company v. Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – February 23, 1987 in Burlington Northern Railroad Company v. Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 28, 1987 in Burlington Northern Railroad Company v. Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

The other case, Burlington Northern Railroad versus Brotherhood began as a dispute over renewal of a collective bargaining agreement between a small railroad in Maine and some of its employees and shortly expanded to picketing and threats of strike activity at railroad facilities all over the country.

A Federal District Court then enjoined the picketing of any railroads other than those involved in the primary dispute.

The question we must decide is whether the prohibition of the Norris-LaGuardia Act that bars Federal Courts from issuing injunctions against secondary activity growing out of any labor dispute stripped the Federal Court of jurisdiction to issue the injunction.

The Court of Appeals held that District Court has no jurisdiction to enter an injunction by enforcing that statute and reversed the District Court.

We agree with the Court of Appeals and affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

We hold, for the reasons stated in the opinion filed by the Clerk that the Federal Court does not have jurisdiction to enjoin secondary picketing in railway labor disputes.

The decision is unanimous.