The Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that a rail employee belonging to one union but represented by another on a particular carrier can't choose which union will represent him during a disciplinary hearing.

The court Wednesday affirmed the decision in Landers vs. National Railroad Passenger Corp. The case involves a worker, a member of the United Transportation Union, who was being disciplined by his employer, Amtrak.The timing of the case may give it much more significance than might otherwise be expected.

The employee in the case asked that the UTU represent him at the hearing, but since Amtrak has an agreement whereby the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers represents all operating personnel, his request was denied.

The employee chose to represent himself at the hearing and received a 30- day suspension. He then filed suit claiming the Railway Labor Act allows him to choose his union representative.

The Supreme Court disagreed, saying he was awarded adequate representation by the BLE.

The UTU last week declared its intention to merge with the BLE, in order to combine the industry's two unions that represent operating workers.

The BLE has made it clear it intends to resist the merger, which may lead to a series of costly and divisive representation fights.

One union official Wednesday said the Supreme Court ruling will certainly heat up the merger dispute.

Why should a worker join the UTU if the UTU can't represent him at a disciplinary hearing? he said.

As the UTU and the BLE have fought for members, several carriers have granted sole representation to one or the other, which is further fueling the feud between the two unions.