Cook County Record

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Private at-will employees not shielded from termination for supporting unions, appeals panel says

By Jonathan Bilyk | Oct 23, 2015


Two men who supported an attempt to unionize an Illinois railroad company are not protected by the law from being fired for their support for organizing their coworkers, a state appeals panel has ruled.

On Oct. 20, a three-justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court issued an unpublished order rejecting an appeal of a Cook County Circuit Court decision against plaintiffs Jeff Weeks and Rich Sweiss who argued Chicago-based Iowa Pacific Holdings illegally fired them for supporting the installation of a union in the company.

Created in 2001, Iowa Pacific operates railroads and rail-related businesses in nine states, including the Chicago Terminal Railroad, which connects to both the Union Pacific and Canadian Pacific railroads in Illinois, and seven other U.S. freight rail lines scattered throughout the country. Iowa Pacific also participates in the operation of tourism-related passenger rail services in some of those same locales, as well as in Peru and the United Kingdom.

In early 2013, employees at Iowa Pacific launched attempts to unionize the workforce. Weeks, who worked as an engineer, and Schweiss, a conductor, voted in favor of creating the union at Iowa Pacific, and, according to court documents, their support for the initiative was no secret at the company.

Iowa Pacific fired Schweiss the day of the vote in May 2013, and fired Weeks five months later. According to court documents, the company accused Schweiss of “disciplinary violations” connected to his “union support.” The company initially fired Weeks “without explanation,” but later asserted it had terminated his employment “for cause.”

Weeks and Schweiss together sued the company in Cook County Circuit Court in 2014, saying the company had improperly retaliated against them for their support of the union.

Cook County Circuit Judge Patrick J. Sherlock dismissed the case, siding with Iowa Pacific’s assertions the men had no legal basis to bring the case, as they had been employed as “at-will” employees and could be fired “for any reason or no reason so long as the termination did not violate a clear mandate of public policy.”

On appeal, Weeks and Schweiss argued the terminations violated the Illinois Constitution’s protections of free speech and opposed Illinois legal precedent in the 1989 case of Temple v. Board of Education of School District No. 94, in which the Illinois Third District Appellate Court found a local school district had violated legal protections afforded to workers when it fired a teacher for supporting efforts to unionize the district’s employees.

Those cases, however, don’t apply in the Iowa Pacific case, the First District Appellate justices said, because Iowa Pacific is a private employer.

Constitutional free speech protections don’t extend to actions taken against employees by private employers for their speech, the justices said.

And in Temple, justices had found the school district functions as an arm of the state, and therefore, is subject to the state constitution’s prohibition on restricting speech, including for employees of state agencies and affiliated public or quasi-public bodies.

“As at-will employees, Weeks and Schweiss possessed no similar right and Iowa Pacific’s reasons for terminating them are inconsequential,” the justices said.

The appellate order, issued under Supreme Court Rule 23, was authored by Justice Michael B. Hyman, with justices Daniel J. Pierce and John B. Simon concurring.

Weeks and Schweiss were represented in the action by the Leonard Law Office, of Chicago.

Iowa Pacific was defended by the firm of Lowis & Gellen, of Chicago.

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