Courts Sides With Railroads and Against Union

The railroad industry won a court battle this week in its efforts to force a railroad labor union to negotiate over crew size.

The National Railway Labor Conference, which represents Class 1 railroads in labor talks with railway labor groups, said a federal court in Texas rejected a union contention that the issue of whether unions must negotiate on crew size must be submitted to arbitration.

Railroads are seeking to negotiate with unions over the redeployment of conductors from onboard trains to working primarily on the ground.

In a news release, the NRLC said it filed the lawsuit last October in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Fort Worth against the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, Transportation Division.

SMART-TD contends that longtime labor agreements ban negotiations over crew staffing of freight trains.

The Texas court ruled the union’s refusal to bargain over crew size violates federal law and it ordered SMART-TD to “bargain in good faith with each of the railroads” over train crew redeployment and staffing issues.

The litigation played out as unions and the NRLC are getting started on the latest round of contract talks.

Under federal law, existing contracts do not have an expiration date and the bargaining process can take years to conclude.

An analysis published on the website of Railway Age noted that the fight over crew size is at its core about the efforts of railroads to lower their labor costs in the face of declining coal traffic and tough competition to divert containers and trailers from trucks driven by non-union drivers.

Another underlying issue, Railway Age wrote, is the use of technology such as positive train control that holds the potential to transform how railroads operate.

Railway Age said these newer technologies create job redundancies.

On the other hand, Railway Age said SMART-TD is seeking to serve the interests of its members by keeping as many of them employed as possible.

What the Class 1 railroads want to achieve in negotiations is not a new idea.

BNSF proposed in 2014 operating trains with a locomotive engineer and assigning conductors to ground-based supervisory positions.

The new operating rules would have applied only to trains operating in positive train control territory.

Those newly designated “master conductors” would have worked from a fixed or mobile location and would have overseen more than one train.

The carrier offered higher pay and career income protection but the proposal was rejected in a vote of union members.

The Railway Age analysis noted that the national union leadership urged its members to reject the work rule changes because unions by nature don’t want to negotiate on crew size.

They see those negotiations as ultimately leading to fewer jobs for their members.

Those fears are not unfounded. At one time freight trains operated with four- and five-person crews, but today two-person crews are standard.

“So mostly this is about adapting to change; and, as will be seen, it is not now going well for the labor union—and eventually may not for its members if the comparison is to be the rejected BNSF tentative agreement,” Railway Age wrote.

The negotiations over crew size are not likely to yield an agreement in the near term.

The talks may be influenced at some point by the intervention of third parties whether those are courts, regulators or legislators.

The Railway Age analysis noted that in the past unions have agreed to rule changes in exchange for a good, but not necessarily better contract as far as their interests were concerned.

They took higher pay as the trade off for lost jobs among their membership rather than have a settlement imposed on them that would be even more advantageous to the carriers.

Unions are themselves appealing to third parties to try to codify their demands for two-person minimum crew sizes nationwide.

The unions have had some headway in obtaining state-mandated minimum crew laws but those are subject to being overruled by federal law and/or regulation.

SMART-TD is appealing the Texas district court decision to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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