NMD Releases Rail Unions From Mediation

The National Mediation Board on Tuesday released railroad labor unions from mediation with railroad management for a new contract, thus setting up the potential for a rail shutdown 90 days from now.

The NMB sided with the unions in their request to be released from mediation. The Mediation board also approved a union request to offer the two sides in the dispute binding arbitration.

A report on the website of Railway Age said the NMB’s 2-1 ruling in essence means the agency doesn’t believe that the two sides will be able to reach a voluntary agreement for a new contract.

The contract negotiations have drug on since January 2020 and involve 12 unions representing more than 115,000 workers.

The National Carriers Conference Committee, which represents railroad management, opposed the request of the unions that they be released from mediation.

Although the NCCC represents management, CSX is bargaining separately with two unions representing operating workers over wages and work rules but not benefits. Canadian Pacific negotiates separately with all of its U.S. labor unions.

Under the federal Railway Labor Act, labor agreements never expire but can be amended.

The law also sets up a series of steps that must be followed before management can lock out workers or the workers can strike. The NMB declaring an impasse is one of those steps.

The Railway Age report said the NMB vote followed party lines in the sense that the two members who voted in favor of release are Democrats while the dissenter is a Republican.

The report said there is widespread speculation the unions are seeking to force Congress to settle the dispute just weeks before the November elections because they believe they will get a better settlement from a Congress controlled by Democrats.

They also appear to be banking on the belief that no political office holders want to see a rail stoppage before an election and at a time when the nation’s supply chain is still struggling to overcome product shortages.

It is not clear if either side will accept the proffer of binding arbitration. Unions have been loathe to accept binding arbitration because it means their members would not be able to vote on the contract terms set by the arbitration panel.

If the binding arbitration panel is turned down, the first of a series of 30-day cooling off periods will be set in motion.

The Biden administration is expected to appoint a presidential emergency board to make non-binding recommendations to settle the dispute.

If one or both sides reject those, the unions would be free to strike and management would be free to impose a lockout once the last of the cooling off periods has expired.

Federal law does not require Congress to settle rail disputes, but traditionally it has due to the importance of rail transportation to the economy and national defense.

The Railway Age report can be read at https://www.railwayage.com/regulatory/nmb-starts-clock-toward-rail-shutdown/

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