About 1,000 LIRR union electricians could stage a work stoppage as early as next week, as they accuse railroad management of violating their contract by suspending a 25-year employee who tested positive for marijuana.
In a text message sent to members on Wednesday, Ricardo Sanchez, general chairman of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 589, told electricians to brace for "extreme action" to resolve the dispute involving co-worker Ronald Dolginko of North Babylon, who has been suspended without pay since December.
In an interview, Sanchez said the union will "take all legal action up to and including a work stoppage." He said he expects the union to make a decision about its next step by Monday.
"When one party ignores the contract, the language and the spirit of cooperation, the other party is left with a tough decision. Either do nothing or do what is necessary for a resolution," Sanchez wrote in the message. "That decision must now be made."
Tim Minton, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the LIRR's parent organization, said "any discussion of an illegal work stoppage is irresponsible, inflammatory and a disservice to Long Islanders who rely on the LIRR to get to jobs, doctors and wherever else they need to go.
"Should such a disruptive walkout occur in violation of the law, the MTA would take the strongest measures possible to end the disruption and minimize any impact on riders," he added.
A work stoppage could entail union electricians reporting to work but refusing to carry out their duties, or refusing overtime assignments. Sanchez said either scenario could impact Long Island Rail Road service, especially if an unexpected electrical problem arose on the railroad’s tracks and could not be quickly addressed.
After undergoing open heart surgery in August, Dolginko, 59, had been convalescing at home when he took a physical exam in December to be cleared to return to work. Dolginko tested positive for marijuana and was suspended for nine months, he said. The suspension was later reduced to six months.
But Dolginko insists he never used marijuana and took another test at an independent medical facility days later that showed no trace of the substance. He suspects the various medications he was taking after his surgery could have resulted in a "false positive."
Regardless, union officials said the LIRR "blatantly disregarded the clear and unambiguous terms" of the collective bargaining agreement by administering a drug test to Dolginko, who was not on duty at the time and could only be subject to a drug test if there was "reasonable suspicion" of drug use.
In a written response to the union earlier this month, LIRR deputy chief people and labor relations officer Kim Moore, citing legal precedent, said the railroad "was well within its rights to administer a drug test during his return-to-work physical." She said Dolginko’s positive test result violated the LIRR’s alcohol- and substance-abuse policy and "was indicative of an ‘unsafe practice,’ " as defined in the union’s contract.
The railroad invited the union to take the matter to an administrative trial, but Dolginko — who is months away from retiring — said by doing so, he would risk being terminated and losing his pension.
In an interview, Dolginko called the situation "baffling," given that he has "never been in trouble" at the railroad.
"They use policy, and that’s the end of the story. They don’t want to hear nothing else. You would think with my record, there would be a little loyalty," said Dolginko, who would like to see the LIRR adopt a drug policy closer to that of sister railroad Metro-North, which does not automatically suspend employees in such incidents.
Sanchez said he’s pushed for a meeting with new LIRR interim president Catherine Rinaldi, who is also president of Metro-North, but has not gotten a response.