Biden to Appoint PEB in Rail Contract Dispute

President Joseph Biden on Friday signed an executive order creating a presidential emergency board thus putting off for at least 60 days the prospect of a national railroad strike or lockout.

Had Biden not signed the order railroad labor unions would have been free to strike as early as Monday. Likewise, the nation’s major railroads could have locked out their workers on the same date.

The PEB will take 30 days to investigate issues of wages, benefits and work rules, and issue recommendations that both sides can accept or reject during another 30-day period.

Under federal labor law if either side rejects the findings of the PEB they can strike in the case of unions or impose lockouts in the case of railroad management.

The carriers and their 12 labor unions have been negotiating without success for a new contract for more than two years.

The dispute went to the National Mediation Board earlier this year but in June it declared the talks were at an impasse.

Members of the PEB have yet to be announced but by law they must not have connections to either labor or the railroad industry.

Historically, findings of PEBs have been the basis for a negotiated contract settlement.

If that is not the case, then Congress can order railroads to resume operation.

In voting for a “back to work” order Congress can and has in the past followed third-party settlement terms. Unlike the terms recommended by a PEB, those imposed by Congress would be binding.

There is some thought that the labor unions are hoping to do better in a “political settlement” by Congress than through mediation or at the bargaining table.

The two sides continue to be at odds over wages, benefits and work rules. In particular, the railroad industry wants to change work rules to provide for roving conductors who would be responsible for multiple trains rather than having a conductor onboard every train.

The creation of the PEB means that the earliest that a strike or lockout could occur is Sept. 18.

Under the Railway Labor Act, railroad contracts never expire but can be amended periodically. The latest railroad negotiations began in January 2020.

In a related development, another major railroad labor union announced it is leaning toward authorizing a strike.

The SMART Transportation Division said in a letter posted on its website that the union’s general committees so far have shown unanimous support for a strike if necessary.

The union said no strike authorization can be issued while a PEB is conducting its investigation.

The SMART-TD announcement came after the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen said its members voted to authorize a strike.

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