Railroads, Unions Bracing for Tough Talks

Class 1 railroads are seeking contract changes pertaining to minimum train-crew staffing related to implementation of train-safety enhancing positive train control as the industry begins its next round of collective bargaining.

The National Railway Labor Conference, which represents the carriers, has notified its 12 craft unions that it also wants to talk about employee cost-sharing of escalating healthcare insurance costs, and liberalization of work rules to allow carriers greater flexibility in assigning jobs.

In notifying the unions of its desire to begin direct contract negotiations in January, the NRLC said its broad proposals are seeking to address “the need to adapt workplace practices to modern technologies, aggressively move healthcare plan design and features toward mainstream standards and achieve better health outcomes, and reach an overall fair and competitive labor cost structure to position the railroads for long-term success in the face of the many industry challenges.”

The talks are expected to be continuous and if the most recent bargaining is any guide drag on for more than a year.

The last round of bargaining began in November 2014 and went through 2018 when the last of the craft unions ratified a new agreement.

The 1926 Railway Labor Act contains provisions to discourage work stoppages or lockouts. The last national railroad strike occurred in 1992.

Federal law also requires that the existing collective bargaining agreement does not expire.

However, the current pact had a contract reopening clause set for Jan. 1, 2020, and the carriers have exercised their right to invoke it.

In response, 10 of the 12 craft unions have formed a coordinated bargaining coalition. Those unions represent about 85 percent of the 125,000 unionized rail workers.

Unions in the bargaining coalition include the American Train Dispatchers Association, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, International Association of Machinists, International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, National Conference of Firemen & Oilers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Transport Workers Union of America, Transportation Communications Union/Brotherhood Railway Carmen, and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail & Transportation Workers Transportation Division/Railroad Yardmasters of America.

The union coalition in a joint statement described the latest bargaining as the “most critical” in a generation.

The statement said the coalition understands “the importance of each union’s autonomy to pursue membership-specific goals within a framework of broad solidarity to defend and improve the wages, benefits and working conditions of our members.”

Two unions, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail & Transportation Workers Mechanical Division plan to negotiate with the carriers separately.

The 10-member union bargaining coalition is expected to resist many of the demands of the carriers, including the efforts to reduce crew size, change work rules, and reduce their compensation.

The carriers are expected to seek rule changes that will redeploy conductors to ground-based positions and to end the practice on most Class 1 railroads that each train have a two-person crew of a conductor and locomotive engineer.

The carriers have described this change as “a natural continuation [of the] evolution” that moved conductors from the caboose to locomotive cab as new technologies, such as end-of-train devices, were installed.”

Underlying these efforts is the desire of Class 1 railroads to recoup some of the billions of dollars they have invested in positive train control systems that have been mandated by federal law on many of their routes.

If unions refuse to negotiate over crew consist on a multi-carrier basis, or the parties are unable to agree on changes in crew consist, the carriers have said they will propose an adjustment to compensation.

The NCCC represents all of the Class 1 carriers and 24 smaller railroads, including Conrail Shard Assets, Belt Railway of Chicago and the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis.

The Class 1 group also includes the U.S. operations of Canadian National, which still exist as separate entities on paper even if all operate under the CN umbrella.

Some railroads are in the bargaining entity for limited purposes.

CSX, for example, participates in national bargaining for wages, benefits and work rules that apply to non-operating-craft unions (such as clerical, mechanical and maintenance), but handles its own negotiations on wages and work rules with its operating craft unions representing train and engine workers.

An analysis published by Railway Age noted that since 2005, unionized rail-worker compensation (wages plus the value of benefits) has increased by 43 percent, versus 29 percent for other American workers.

Compensation of the highest paid rail workers has increased by some $33,000 annually while those on the lower wage rungs have seen their pay increase by about $16,000 annually.

The average compensation of rail workers of more than $120,000 annually places them among the top 6 percent of wage earners nationwide and above many occupations that require advanced college degrees.

However, Railway Age noted that with rail traffic in decline, coal traffic collapsing, and the U.S. economy slowing, in part due to trade wars and other global conditions, railroads economics are not what they once were.

The railroads are expected to seek changes in the compensation they pay their workers that are tied to market conditions and wages and benefits in comparable industries.

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