I'm sorry to hear about this situation. My answer is based on the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the main labor law that applies to collective bargaining in the private sector. Know that your union may be under somewhat different standards because of the industry you are in; your industry is covered by the Railway Labor Act, not the NLRA. Even so, most likely the standards are the same or very similar.
Very few attorneys sue unions. The standard to prove a union breached its duty of fair representation (DFR) is very tough to meet. A union breaches its duty of fair representation only if it acts arbitrarily, discriminatorily or in bad faith. Vaca v. Sipes, 386 U.S. 171 (1967). These words are legal terms of art and have a different meaning than in ordinary English and a different meaning in this area than in other areas of law. The level of wrongdoing required is far beyond negligence, and is premised on the union’s duty to represent the entire bargaining unit (the group of workers the union represents). The union must represent the bargaining unit overall, even if doing so is at the expense of one or more specific workers.
A union has the right to pursue some grievances and not others, to enforce parts of the collective bargaining agreement (contract) and not others, and to decline to arbitrate even a meritorious grievance if it believes doing so is not in the bargaining unit’s interest. The union can make this kind of decision if it feels it does not have adequate resources – financial, personnel or whatever – to warrant going forward. As long as the decision isn’t arbitrary, discriminatory or made in bad faith, the union acts within its rights. And most local unions do in fact have limited resources, so they decide to pursue to the end (arbitrate) only those cases which they feel are the most advantageous to the bargaining unit as a whole.
Again under the NLRA, only a small number of DFR cases are successful. If an employee decides to pursue a DFR against the union, note there is a six month statute of limitation for suing a union. The claim is filed directly in federal court; if filed in state court, it will certainly be removed (transferred) to federal court, unless one of the state labor relations laws is applicable.
The employee can also file an unfair labor practice claim against the union with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), alleging one of the specific unfair labor practices in the NLRA (assuming it applies). No attorney’s fees are awardable in an NLRB action, and there is a six month statute of limitation.
@MikaSpencer * * * twitter.com/MikaSpencer * * * PLEASE READ: All legal actions have time limits, called statutes of limitation. If you miss the deadline for filing your claim, you will lose the opportunity to pursue your case. Please consult with an experienced employment attorney as soon as possible to better preserve your rights. * * * Marilynn Mika Spencer provides information on Avvo as a service to the public, primarily when general information may be of assistance. Avvo is not an appropriate forum for an in-depth response or a detailed analysis. These comments are for information only and should not be considered legal advice. Legal advice must pertain to specific, detailed facts. * * * No attorney-client relationship is created based on this information exchange. * * * Marilynn Mika Spencer is licensed to practice law before all state and federal courts in California and can appear before administrative agencies throughout the country. She is eligible to represent clients in other states on a pro hac vice basis.