In last Sunday's Business section, the Workplace column incorrectly reported that the unions sought a court order to prevent a strike against Norfolk Southern Railroad. The company sought the court injunction. (Published 11/18/90)

Picture this: It's dawn at the railroad yard and the first shift of repair crews is arriving for another day of heavy lifting, bending and repair work on the locomotives and freight cars of the Norfolk and Southern Railway.

Enter the foreman, ordering the assembled mechanics, electricians and boilermakers to give him five: 5 minutes of warm-up exercises before starting on the job.

That was the scene earlier this month when Norfolk Southern Corp. announced a mandatory exercise program at the start of each shift for the 4,600 repair and maintenance workers in the railroad's 20-state system.

But in no uncertain terms, the employees' unions have let the company know they're not interested in exercise or any other Japanese-style management techniques the railroad insists on enforcing. Earlier this month, the unions filed suit in Roanoke and threatened a nationwide strike unless the company dispenses with the jumping jacks.

Since then, with the intervention of the courts, the two sides have agreed to submit the dispute to binding arbitration. The final ruling could have a broad impact on the ability of companies to deal with unionized workers.

The confrontation between Norfolk Southern and its unions raises a fundamental workplace issue by pitting the rights of an employer to take action it considers medically beneficial for its employees against the rights of workers protected by union contracts.

"We maintain it was not a change in working conditions; it was a medical policy," said Robert Fort, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern. He said the "loosening up" exercises were recommended by the company's medical director as a way to cut down on injuries in the repair shops.

"We've adopted a number of medical policies we feel are beneficial," said Fort. "One policy is a total ban on smoking in the workplace. The exercise program is very similar." Besides, Fort said, "these are very basic type warm-up exercises, very light exercises, not aerobics or jogging. Japanese industry has done it for years. It's a preventive measure for people in a position where they might hurt themselves."

Easy or not, the unions representing the company's maintenance and repair workers argue the exercise requirement is a violation of federal labor law because it changes the working conditions of union members without coming to the bargaining table to negotiate the changes.

"Let me stress that we're not arguing the merits of the program," said Dave Stack of the International Association of Machinists. "Our problem is with the unilateral aspect of this."

The notion of warm-up exercises is not new in the railroad industry. Norfolk Southern has had a voluntary exercise program at its repair shops since October 1989, sessions that have attracted the participation of many union members. At least two other railroads, CSX Transportation Inc. and Burlington Northern Inc., have voluntary exercise programs.

Medical experts at Norfolk Southern noticed that workers who participated in the voluntary program had fewer injuries than those who didn't and decided to make the program mandatory.

Soon after, notices appeared on the bulletin boards in maintenance shops around the Norfolk Southern system informing employees the exercise program would no longer be voluntary.

"Effective November 1, 1990," the notice said, "all employees whose job assignments require physical work will be required at the beginning of their assignment, while under pay, to participate in the prescribed warm-up exercises ... except for medical reasons approved by the {Norfolk Southern} medical director."

A second notice posted on the repair shop bulletin boards carried a more ominous warning: Anyone who refuses to participate faces disciplinary action. If a worker is unable to participate in the exercise program for medical reasons, his supervisor should notify the company's medical department "concerning the employee's qualifications to remain in service."

Bill Fairchild, president of the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, said the union was particularly concerned about the language suggesting workers could be terminated if they couldn't participate for medical reasons.

"When a notice like that goes out, we interpret it as a change in working conditions," Fairchild said.

Fairchild said his union made it clear in a letter to Norfolk Southern "that we are ready and willing to cooperate in programs that promote the health and safety of the workers." But, he said, any such programs have to be negotiated with the unions, not unilaterally imposed by management.

The IAM's Stack agreed. "It's our position that it's a violation of the status quo, particularly the disciplinary part. That's scary for any worker."