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Case Basics
Docket No. 
Consol. Rail Corp.
Railway Labor Executives
(on behalf of Respondents)
(on behalf of Petitioner)
Facts of the Case 

On February 20, 1987, Consolidated Rail Corporation (“Conrail”) announced its decision to include drug screening in all periodic and return-to-duty examinations. Conrail had always enforced Rule G of its agreement with its unionized employees, which forbids the use or possession of “intoxicants, narcotics, amphetamines or hallucinogens” by its employees. Previously, it routinely used drug screening urinalysis as part of return-to-duty medical examinations of employees with drug-related problems and in other examinations where the examining physician suspected drug use.

The Railway Labor Executives’ Association (“RLEA”)-- comprised of individuals in leadership positions at more than eighteen craft unions-- filed suit against Conrail, alleging that Conrail violated Section 6 of the Railway Labor Act (“RLA”). The RLA, passed in 1926 and amended in 1934, created the National Railroad Adjustment Board, an arbitration board designed to settle minor disputes between railroad companies and labor organizations. Under Sections 5 and 6 of the RLA, major disputes require an extensive mediation and conciliation process.

District court Judge Anthony J. Scirica found that the dispute was “minor” under the Railway Labor Act because Conrail’s decision was arguably justified by the terms of its agreement with the unions, and that the court had no jurisdiction over the dispute. Judge Dolores Sloviter of the U.S. Court of Appeals, 3rd Circuit reversed. Judge Sloviter rejected the district court’s conclusion that Conrail’s prior use of medical examinations arguably justified unilaterally changing its drug testing policy. The appeals court held that the dispute was “major” because it changed the terms and conditions governing employment relationships.


Does the RLEA’s opposition to Conrail’s changed drug testing program create a “major” dispute under the Railway Labor Act?

Decision: 7 votes for Consol. Rail Corp., 2 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Railway Labor

No. Writing for the majority, Justice Harry Blackmun held that if Conrail asserts that its agreement with the unions gives Conrail the discretion to change their drug testing policy –assuming that claim is arguably justified by the terms of the agreement-- Conrail may make that change and the courts must defer to the decision of the RLA’s arbitration board. Conrail’s claim of a right to unilaterally change its drug policy –although based on implied terms of its contract with the RLEA—was not “frivolous or obviously insubstantial.” Conrail does not have to wait until the arbitration board makes a decision to change its drug testing policy. The court believed this decision would diminish the risk of interruptions to commerce caused by labor disputes.

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CONSOL. RAIL CORP. v. RAILWAY LABOR EXECUTIVES. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 26 August 2015. <>.
CONSOL. RAIL CORP. v. RAILWAY LABOR EXECUTIVES, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, (last visited August 26, 2015).
"CONSOL. RAIL CORP. v. RAILWAY LABOR EXECUTIVES," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 26, 2015,