Rhetoric Continues to Rise in Contract Dispute

A ninth railroad labor union has reached a tentative agreement with the National Carriers Conference Committee, which represents railroad management in contract talks.

In the meantime, various shipper trade associations continued to apply pressure on Congress  to settle the dispute to avoid a strike or lockout that could occur as early as Friday.

President Joseph Biden also called top railroad management executives and union leaders to lobby them to settle the contract dispute, which a union president said on Monday is stalled over railroad attendance policies.

The latest union to reach a tentative agreement is the National Conference of Firemen & Oilers.

A news release from the union said the tentative pact implements the recommendations of a presidential emergency board of a 24 percent compounded wage increase over the five-year length of the contract, which covers the period of 2020 through 2024.

Workers would receive retroactive pay to cover 2020 and 2021 and parts of 2022. They also would receive five annual $1,000 lump sum payments.

That leaves three unions, which represent locomotive engineers, conductors and signal workers still at the bargaining table. The 12 railroad labor unions represent 125,000 workers.

The latest agreement came as various parties in the dispute continue to heat up the war of words.

Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen, said on Monday that worker attendance policies are the primary unresolved issue in the contract talks.

Pierce said during an appearance on cable news network CNBC that BNSF and Union Pacific in particular are being adamant about refusing to modify their attendance policies.

“We’re just looking for time away from work to address our medical issues,” Pierce said.  “Union Pacific and BNSF attendance policies are assessing [penalty] points to our members when they just want to take time off for their regular medical appointments.”

In response, BNSF told CNBC that Pierce’s claims were false while UP said it was continuing to push for a “prompt resolution” to avoid a shutdown of the national freight rail system. 

In a related development, leaders of the SMART Transportation Division union told Congressional leaders on Tuesday that lawmakers should let rail labor contract negotiations play out.

In a letter to Congress SMART-TD legislative director Greg Hynes said union members would reject a tentative contract based on the recommendations of the PEB by a 3-to-1 margin.

Hynes also said in his letter that the top issue in the contract talks is not wages but working conditions.

He said the carriers “are still refusing to provide our members with minimal provisions to improve their overall quality of life, and to recognize their contributions to the industry and to the American economy.”

The PEB appointed by President Biden earlier this year was largely silent on work rules, saying  only that they should be negotiated at the local level between the railroads and the unions.

Unions have described the attendance policies that railroads have imposed as “draconian.”

“Through egregious and excessive absenteeism policies, the railroads have taken away our members’ ability to be a worthy parent and dependable spouse; and they have eliminated any realistic means for an employee to receive medical services or care for a sick child without being assessed discipline or termination,” Hynes wrote.

The PEB did recommend that workers receive one additional paid day off.

The Association of American Railroads said in a statement that workers have numerous ways to take time off, including paid vacation, sick leave and supplemental sick leave policies through the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act.

The AAR statement said crews also can mark off for any reason “if they maintain a reasonable level of overall availability under carrier attendance policies.”

BNSF said its workers generally get three to five weeks of paid vacation and 10 to 14 paid holidays or personal leave days, and received a 25 percent increase in personal leave days.

UP officials said it “understands our employees want a different way and process … to request and receive time off for things like medical appointments. We are in active discussions with the unions to try to address these concerns.”

In the meantime, several trade organizations have called on Congress to intervene to head off a strike and/or lockout.

They include the National Industrial Transportation League, one of the largest and oldest group of rail shippers, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“NITL members and shippers of all sizes in all regions continue experiencing dismal freight rail service due primarily to the implementation of precision scheduled railroading. Any disruption in freight rail service will negatively impact our nation’s international competitiveness while making inflation even worse which is affecting all Americans,” Nancy O’Liddy, executive director of the NIT League, wrote in a Sept. 12 letter to congressional leaders.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said a strike would be an “economic disaster.”

On Monday, President Biden and members of his cabinet held emergency meetings in Washington and have been talking with the parties in the labor dispute.

The Federal Railroad Administration said it “is initiating oversight and enforcement efforts to ensure safety during any potential interruption of rail operations.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: