A federal appeals court ruled Friday that Amtrak (search) employees can't walk off the job to protest what they call chronic government underfunding of the passenger railroad.

Members of unions representing 8,000 of Amtrak's 21,000 employees said in October they'd call a work stoppage because Congress and the Bush administration wouldn't give the railroad enough money. Such an action could have affected intercity passenger service as well as commuter trains in some major cities.

The unions argued that the law banning strikes doesn't apply to the proposed walkout because it would be a political action that had nothing to do with negotiations over pay or working conditions.

The court disagreed, noting that Amtrak unions are engaged in negotiation or mediation with the railroad over new contracts.

"Call it a political protest (search) rather than a strike; no matter," the court said, adding that federal law prohibits a strike as well as any union tactic that "has the consequences of a strike."

Amtrak lost its initial lawsuit in federal court to prevent the walkout. The unions agreed that they wouldn't do anything until a higher court ruled on the railroad's appeal.

Since then, Congress gave Amtrak $600 million less than the $1.8 billion that the railroad's president said it needed for 2004. President Bush (search) had proposed giving Amtrak about half of what it wanted.

Douglas Ginsburg, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (search), wrote that the amount that Congress gives to Amtrak determines how much it can pay its employees.

"We think it clear that, insofar as the subject matter of the unions' proposed strike is the level of congressional appropriations for Amtrak, the strike does 'grow out of' the major dispute between Amtrak and the unions over the formation of new collective bargaining agreements concerning, among other things, rates of pay and working conditions," Ginsburg wrote.

For the budget year starting in October, Amtrak asked for $1.798 billion. Bush proposed giving the railroad $900 million.