Posts Tagged ‘National Railway Labor Conference’

Panel Rules Unions Must Bargain Over Crew Size

July 31, 2021

Railroad labor unions suffered a setback this week when an arbitration panel ruled that crew size is an issue that is subject to collective bargaining.

Unions have long resisted bargaining over crew size on the national level, saying it should be a local issue.

But a federal arbitration panel decided this week that crew size is a national issue.

The decision found that standard moratorium language in decades-old labor agreements do not prohibit negotiations over crew size on freight trains.

Railroad management wants to change train crew staffing practices so that there would be one locomotive engineer per train but the job of the conductor would become more of a ground-based position with conductors having responsibility for multiple trains.

The 2-1 arbitration decision is binding and grew out of a lawsuit launched by the National Railway Labor Conference, which represents Class 1 railroads, to force unions to bargain over crew size in the current negotiations for a new contract.

The arbitration panel was made up of one member approved by labor, one approved by management and a neutral member who in this case is a California law professor and veteran arbitrator.

Contract talks have been ongoing for more than a year and in the meantime federal law requires the previous contract remain in effect until a new pact is reached and ratified by union members.

The Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Union’s Transportation Division (SMART-TD) saw a silver lining in the ruling that the arbitration panel did not mandate any particular outcome in negotiations.

The arbitration ruling also did not mandate that bargaining over crew size be done globally, meaning crew size talks with be done on a railroad-by-railroad basis.

The railroad industry and its unions began contract talks in November 2019 on wages, benefits and work rules.

Unions can be expected to continue seeking to get state legislatures to approve laws mandating two-per crews. Some Democrat members of Congress have introduced similar legislation that would apply nationwide.

The arbitration panel’s ruling requires SMART-TD to bargain with Class 1 railroads and some smaller carriers over crew size matters.

Railway Age reported the arbitration ruling affects more than 60 percent of the conductors at Class 1 railroads, including all conductors employed by BNSF and Norfolk Southern and half the conductors at Union Pacific.

Conductors employed by Canadian National, Canadian Pacific and CSX are not unaffected by the arbitration ruling because their unions were not parties to legal action resulting in the arbitration.

Kansas City Southern recently voluntarily withdrew its arbitration demand and was dismissed from the award by the arbitration panel majority. 

The Railway Age report indicated that railroads was pushing for more efficient operations because of an increasing reliance by carriers on intermodal traffic that is subject to diversion to trucking company, many of which have non-union operators who work for lower wages and benefits than those paid to unionized railroaders.

Intermodal traffic provides lower profit margins that some carload traffic – coal being a notable example – that railroad once relied upon for their financial well being.

Industry observers have noted that the development of positive train control has given railroads an opening to seek to reduce crew sizes by arguing that it will provide for safer operations and thus a second set of eyes in the cab are not needed.

Frank Wilner, who writes for Railway Age, has long argued that “no labor union ever has done better than slow the introduction of new technology.”

Courts Sides With Railroads and Against Union

February 14, 2020

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.

Union Sues Mediation Board on Arbitration of Crew Size

February 1, 2020

The National Mediation Board has appointed an arbitrator to handle a case involving crew size, which has prompted a railroad labor union to sue the Board.

The  SMART Transportation Division and nearly two dozen General Committees filed the suit after the mediation board voted 2 to 1 in favor of appointing an arbitrator.

“The National Mediation Board has unlawfully and without authority initiated an arbitration process involving the SMART-TD and multiple rail carriers, contrary to the provisions of the Railway Labor Act,” the lawsuit states.

The Mediation Board had acted after the National Railway Labor Conference requested the board to forcibly appoint a representative of SMART to negotiate on the union’s behalf over crew sizes during talks for a new contract that are in the process of getting underway.

The NRLC represents a coalition of Class 1 railroads.

SMART had earlier taken the position that crew size should be negotiated at the local level between individual railroads and local committees.

The carriers have also filed a lawsuit against SMART in an effort to force it to negotiate crew size at the national level.

The Class 1 carriers have been open about their desire to operate many trains with one-person crews.

The two Mediation Board members who sided with the carriers, Kyle Fortson and Gerald Fauth, were appointed by President Donald Trump.

The dissenting member was Chairwoman Linda Puchala who said the Board’s action circumvented decades of Railway Labor Act precedent in how these disputes are handled.

A spokesperson for the Labor Conference supported the Board’s decision.

“We support the National Mediation Board’s designation of a SMART-TD representative and agree with the Board’s well-considered decision that such designation is required under the Railway Labor Act,” the spokesperson said.

He added that the carriers believe collective bargaining is the proper forum to discuss train crew staffing and joint arbitration sought by the railroads is the appropriate method for resolving the parties’ dispute over the interpretation of common contract language.

The first round of negotiations will open on Feb. 26 and 27 in Washington.

Railroads, Unions Bracing for Tough Talks

November 5, 2019

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.

Class 1s Begin Bargaining With 12 Unions

November 2, 2019

Bargaining got underway this week between 12 railroad labor unions and the National Railway Labor Conference, which represents the nation’s Class 1 freight railroads.

The railroad industry has indicated that it wants the unions to agree to a new contract that better aligns pay to market conditions and pay levels of comparable industries.

In a news release, the NRLC said it also is seeking changes to health-plan design that would allow more cost sharing; and make changes to work rules, including those that affect train-crew staffing.

In doing this, the railroads also want to take into account the use of new technology, including developments in automation and safety, in railroad operations.

The NRLC said any new contract would ensure that railroad employees remain one of the best compensated workforces in America.

The bargaining affects working conditions and compensation for nearly 125,000 railroad employees represented by the unions.

Under the Railway Labor Act, current collective bargaining agreements remain in force indefinitely.

This is done to minimize service disruptions because of labor disputes.

The last time the unions and the NRLC launched negotiations it took four years to reach a new contract, which was ratified in 2018.