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Railroad unions could strike Friday

(File photo; Trevor T. Trujillo, Cap City)

GILLETTE, Wyo. — The federally mandated cooling-off period between freight railroads and train unions ends at midnight Eastern Time on Friday, Sept. 16.

By that time, freight railroads must come to an agreement with train unions or Congress must take action. Otherwise, train unions can strike.

The National Carriers Conference Committee has reached tentative agreements with many train unions. Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, or BLET, and International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers’ Transportation Division, SMART-TD, however, aren’t among them.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe employee and SMART-TD Local 465 Chairperson Kevin Knutson said he’s getting his “ducks in a row” while waiting to hear from union leadership whether the Gillette-area union chapter will be asked to go on strike.

Knutson said he has a location picked out for an organization meeting that would occur before a strike, if that authorization comes. He declined to tell County 17 the location.

In an executive order July 15, President Joe Biden appointed an emergency board to address disputes between railroad unions and freight railroads. Ira Jaffe chaired the board, which also included Boston College professor David Twomey and independent arbitrator Barbara Deinhardt.

The board came back with the following recommendations:

As Railway Age reported, Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Roger Wicker of Mississippi introduced a resolution on Sept. 12 to force both the unions and the carriers to adopt the emergency board’s recommendations if the parties can’t make an agreement by the time the clock runs out.

The American Trucking Associations President and CEO, Chris Spear, said in a Sept. 9 letter to Congressional leaders that they should quickly get a contract set up between the parties that will go into effect if they can’t independently reach an agreement by the Sept. 16 deadline.

Trucking and freight rail depend on each other to move shipments domestically and internationally, and businesses and trucking companies will need contingency plans, he said. The U.S. supply chain is still fragile, and the holiday season is coming, Spear said.

“Idling all 7,000 long-distance daily freight trains in the U.S. would require more than 460,000 additional long-haul trucks every day, which is not possible based on equipment availability and an existing shortage of 80,000 drivers,” he said.

The Association of American Railroads said Sept. 9 that six Class I freight railroads in the national bargaining will begin to manage and secure the shipments of hazardous and security-sensitive materials, such as chlorine used to purify drinking water and chemicals used in fertilizer, and other freight customers may begin experiencing service delays as railroads prepare in case negotiations don’t end in resolution.

“Railroads are taking all measures necessary to handle sensitive cargo in accordance with federal regulations to ensure that no such cargo is left on an unattended or unsecured train in the event of a work stoppage due to an impasse in labor negotiations,” the news release said.

BLET and SMART-TD said in a joint statement Sept. 11 that the move was “a completely unnecessary attack” on rail shippers as unions are still at the bargaining table and have given rail carriers a proposal.

“The railroads are using shippers, consumers, and the supply chain of our nation as pawns in an effort to get our Unions to cave into their contract demands knowing that our members would never accept them,” the statement said. “Our Unions will not cave into these scare tactics, and Congress must not cave into what can only be described as corporate terrorism.”

Improvements to working conditions are crucial, union leaders said in the statement.

“Penalizing engineers and conductors for getting sick or going to a doctor’s visit with termination must be stopped as part of this contract settlement,” the statement said. “Let us repeat that, our members are being terminated for getting sick or for attending routine medical visits as we crawl our way out of worldwide pandemic.”

They said the employment policies are forcing employees out of the industry and making recruitment more difficult.

“With understaffed operations, these railroads abuse their best customers by refusing to provide deliveries consistent with their legal obligations,” the statement said. “These self-appointed titans of industry complain constantly about government regulation and interference — except now when it comes to breaking the backs of their employees. It’s time for the federal government to tell the CEO’s who are running the nation’s railroads into the ground that enough is enough. Congress should stay out of the rail dispute and tell the railroads to do what other business leaders do — sit down and bargain a contract that your employees will accept.”

The National Carriers’ Conference Committee said in an Aug. 17 statement that the emergency board’s recommendations would include the most substantial wage increases in decades, with average rail worker wages reaching about $110,000 per year, or $150,000 per year with benefits, by the end of the agreement. (The committee said in its online FAQ that was last updated Sept. 13 that the average wages, including the benefits, would be about $160,000.)

“Although the recommended wage terms significantly exceed those proposed by the carriers in this round and are far above those contained in prior rail labor settlements, it is in the best interests of all stakeholders — including customers, employees, and the public — for the railroads and rail labor organizations to settle this dispute and prevent service disruptions,” the statement said.

The committee said BLET and SMART-TD are demanding changes that go beyond or were rejected by the emergency board, and the board’s recommendation is a compromise that should serve as the basis for a prompt, voluntary agreement.

“It provides for the largest wage increases in more than 40 years, preserves rail employees’ ‘platinum-level’ health plans, and makes only limited work rules changes (in some cases referring them back to the parties for additional discussions),” the FAQ said.

The committee said rail employees receive up to five weeks of vacation and up to 14 paid holidays and/or paid leave days, depending on craft and seniority. Employees participate in a carrier-funded federal sickness benefit program, and operating craft employees can temporarily remove themselves from service if they maintain “a reasonable level of overall availability under carrier attendance policies.”

“Against this backdrop, it is simply untrue to assert that employees cannot take any time off to attend to things like preventative medical exams,” the FAQ said.

As of 6:36 p.m. MT Tuesday, the National Carriers’ Conference Committee has announced it has reached tentative agreements with the following unions: Transportation Communications Union/IAM, Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, American Train Dispatchers Association, Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Mechanical Department and National Conference of Firemen & Oilers, SEIU.

National Carriers Conference Committee members include BNSF Railway Company, Kansas City Southern Railway Company, Norfolk Southern Railway Company and Union Pacific.