Two Perspectives on Healthcare Arbitration: NRLC, Unions

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Written by

William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

On October 26, the National Railroad Labor Conference announced that an arbitrator had ruled that the United States Class I freight railways “could advance all aspects except one of a proposal to make network changes to national railroad health plans “. Union leaders involved in collective bargaining with the NLRC took a different spin, saying in part: “An arbitrator rejected the railway industry’s attempt to use a never-before-used contract clause imposed by Congress ago. 30 years to cut health care. networks available to more than 250,000 railway workers and members of their families on the national health plan for railway workers.

The NRLC is an association of all Class I freight railways in the United States and many smaller freight and passenger lines. Through its National Transporters Conference (NCCC) Committee, the NRLC represents most of its members in national negotiations with the 12 main rail trade unions. The current cycle, which began on January 1, 2020, involves more than 30 railways and approximately 125,000 employees. The NCCC includes senior labor relations executives from BNSF, CSX, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific and CN’s US properties.

The unions involved in collective bargaining are the American Train Dispatchers Association (ATDA); the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET); the Brotherhood of Track Maintenance Employees (BMWE); the Brotherhood of Railway Signalers (BRS); the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM); the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transport Workers, Mechanical Division and Transport Divisions (SMART-MD and SMART-TD); the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW); National District Fire and Tanker Conference, Local 32BJ, SEIU; the Syndicat des communications des transports (TCU) / IAM; and the Transport Workers Union (TWU).

Age of the railway reproduces these two very different interpretations. We note that the health care network is complex, with probably a dozen or more networks used by railways, in some cases hospital associations, in others, physician networks, and varying depending on the location. geography – rural versus non-rural, and old railroad versus current railroad. The management and workforce each depend on outside consultants in this area due to the complexity.

First, the interpretation of the NRLC:

“These health plans, which offer one of the most generous health care benefits in the country, are administered by joint labor-management committees who have a legal obligation to properly administer the plans, control costs and to conserve resources. When these committees cannot agree on an issue related to how the plans should be administered, the parties’ agreements provide for binding arbitration.

“Following an unsuccessful challenge by the trade unions before a federal court, the parties arbitrated whether the proposal could be put forward to the joint committees.

“The proposal to realign insurance providers in certain geographic markets to obtain more favorable supplier discount terms would reduce unnecessary plan expenses and save plan members money without any change in the overwhelming majority of plan members. cases to the network status of a member’s doctor. or other health service providers.

“At the August 31 arbitration hearing, the railroads argued that the proposal concerned typical, but important plan administration issues that fall under the authority of the joint committees. The unions retaliated that the whole proposal – for various reasons – could only be addressed in the context of the ongoing national collective bargaining between the railways and the unions and could not be forwarded to the joint committees and to arbitration.

“Rejecting the arguments of the unions, the arbitrator agreed with the railways that the proposal, with the exception of all aspects except one concerning the use of a single supplier in certain markets, is administrative in nature and appropriate to be addressed by joint committees. In reaching this conclusion, the arbitrator held that the selection of insurance providers is within the “inherent discretion” of joint committees and that any prior negotiation on an issue does not alter the power of joint committees to address the issue. outside of collective bargaining. The railways now look forward to resolving these issues in discussions with the joint committees over the next few months. ”

Second, the interpretation of union leaders:

“This decision is a major victory for railway workers covered by national agreement health care plans, as their negotiated right to choose their own medical network remains intact.

“At the beginning of July 2020, a little over eight months after the start of the current round of national negotiations, the NRLC proposed to reconfigure the network structure of the national plan in such a way as to force many railway workers to immediately access the cheapest medical network in the region, then on a continuous schedule of 3 to 5 years without formal negotiation. The Cooperating Rail Labor Organizations (CRLO), which is the rail labor coordination group that oversees the administration of the scheme in concert with the NRLC, rejected the proposal, saying it was an issue to be negotiated. and stressing that the carriers had made an identical proposal at the negotiating table. In late July, the NRLC demanded unions accept the proposal and threatened to use the neutral binding deadlock process found in the settlement of the 1991 national accord to resolve the dispute.

“This threat has led the 12 unions to file a lawsuit against the nation’s Class I rail carriers in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, asking the court to force the carriers to bargain in good faith with the unions. on mandatory negotiating subjects, such as their proposed network structure. The carriers’ defense was that this was a “minor” dispute under the Railway Labor Act, as it involved an administrative issue under the national plan and, therefore, could be resolved. by the “deadlock” process that was included in the national agreements for all unions that were imposed by Congress – and enacted by President George HW Bush – to stop a national strike in 1991.

“In a hearing on August 31, 2021 before a special adjustment committee chaired by arbitrator Joshua M. Javits, the unions documented the history of the development of the health care network in the rail industry, showing that the carriers’ proposal was anything but administrative in nature. . They also showed the negative impact the proposal would have on more than a quarter of a million plan members. The carriers retorted that no “right to choose” existed in any national agreement and that the deadlock neutral had the power to decide the issue if the parties could not come to an agreement.

“In defending the trade unions’ position on the key issue of network choice, President Javits’ award of October 20 concluded that” the carriers’ proposal – insofar as it concerns the selection of network providers – is an administrative matter . However, the elements of the carriers’ proposal which reduce the choice of plan participants and ensure that only one network provider is available to plan participants, constitute a change in the design of the plan and, therefore, do not fall outside the competence of the deadlock neutral.

“This is an important victory for the men and women covered by the national plans, and for their families. The carriers are dragging their feet at the bargaining table as this dispute weaves its way through the system. All the while, our members – essential employees, each and every one – have continued to move the country forward despite the pandemic. To carriers, whose profits have continued to flow unabated, we say the time for delays is over. Your workers have deserved and deserve a new national agreement, which reflects their true contribution to your bottom line. We stand ready to negotiate this agreement and urge you to devote as much energy to this task as you invested in your unsuccessful efforts to deprive your workers of their choice of medical networks.


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