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Biden issues executive order Friday to avoid railroad workers strike

A loaded coal train rolls through Gillette on March 4, 2020. Coal production in the region has declined by half since 2008. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — In an executive order Friday, President Joe Biden appointed an emergency board to address disputes between railroad unions and freight railroads.

The move launched a 30-day cooling off period for the groups, which could agreement Tuesday when they met with the National Mediation Board.

Nearly all members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union, one 13 involved in the disputes, had voted Tuesday to authorize a strike if progress on a new labor contract wasn’t made by the end of the week.

Per the Railway Labor Act of 1926, strikes are prohibited during these cooling off periods. The board will report to the president within 30 days regarding the disputes and provide non-binding recommendations. Then another 30-day cooling off period will begin. If that doesn’t work, Congress can intervene.

The brotherhood’s Gillette Division 94 Local Chairman Steve Halbrook said Friday that wages, health and welfare and crew reduction have been the major dispute items for transportation.

“We have been working with an expired contract for just over three years while the railroad is making record profits year over year,” he said. “So now they want to cut crew size, which could endanger the crews as well as the general public.”

Carriers have proposed redeploying conductors from the locomotive cab to ground-based positions in positive train control territory, leaving one instead of two workers on the train.

The National Carriers Conference Committee, which represents the nation’s freight railroads in national collective bargaining, said in an online FAQ regarding the disputes that redeploying conductors will allow carriers to continue operating safely and increase efficiency, while maintaining customer service levels.

“On the employee front, ground-based conductor positions are expected to be regular assignments with predictable schedules,” the online FAQ said. “This type of scheduling will significantly enhance employee quality of life by eliminating the need for many conductors in through-freight service to overnight away from home.”

Greg Regan, President of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, which represents 13 rail worker unions involved in the ongoing national contract negotiations, said in a statement that railroads are making record profits as workloads and work hours have “increased exponentially” and have not made a contract proposal that workers could accept.

“Just as they have failed in their responsibility to provide reasonable freight service for their customers and the American people, the railroads have also failed in their responsibility to their workers in their greedy quest to become modern-day robber barons,” Regan said. “The reality is that these frontline workers are pandemic heroes who move essential cargo and goods through the supply chain, yet they have not received a pay raise in three years and are risking their personal health and safety every day on the job.”

The United Rail Unions are together preparing a case representing all rail employees before the board.

“Our unified case will clearly show that the Unions’ proposals are supported by current economic data and are more than warranted when compared to our memberships’ contribution to the record profits of the rail carriers,” the unions said in a news release.

The carriers committee said in a statement that it wants to settle the bargaining round on “reasonable terms that provide employees with prompt and well-deserved pay increases and prevent rail service disruptions.”

“Throughout the bargaining round, the railroads have worked to thoughtfully address issues raised by both sides and have offered pay increases that are consistent with labor market benchmarks and reward rail employees for their essential work,” the committee said. “The railroads’ proposals would continue to place rail employee pay and benefits among the best in the nation.”

The railroads began mediating in June 2021 with the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters/ International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers Mechanical Division, and talks with the Coordinated Bargaining Coalition began in late January 2022, the committee’s FAQ said. On June 14, the National Mediation Board ended mediation and invited parties to binding interest arbitration, which the railroads accepted but union declined, prompting the first cooling off period, the committee said. The railroads have proposed increasing pay effective July 1 and retroactive pay for increases for 2020 and 2021, with increases in 2023 and 2024.

“Recent statements by labor leaders claiming the carriers are not proposing pay increases are false. These statements seem to be based upon the unsupported notion that pay rates must be linked to and exceed the percentage increase in the highest available consumer inflationary measure. But that is not how pay is determined by all types of companies, large and small, in industries across the country. Instead, companies use benchmarks in the relevant labor market to establish compensation – and those benchmarks have guided the railroads’ proposals.”

The national railroad health care plans provide benefits to 320,000 railroad employees and their families. Current plan design provisions haven’t changed since 2019, and contribution levels have remained the same since 2016, the committee said. The railroads have proposed updating contribution rates and design for health care plans.

The last service disruption because of national bargaining disputes was in the early 1990s. Congress then required railroads and many rail labor unions to complete final and binding interest arbitration.

The unions represent about 115,000 railroad workers. The involved organizations include American Train Dispatchers Association, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen / Teamsters Rail Conference, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, the International Association of Machinists, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, the National Conference of Firemen & Oilers/SEIU, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Transport Workers Union of America, the Transportation Communications Union / IAM, including TCU’s Brotherhood Railway Carmen Division, and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers. The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division and SMART Mechanical Unions are also bargaining as a coalition.


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