Work talks: a headache, but never boring

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Written by

Frank N. Wilner, Capitol Hill Editor

RAILWAY AGE MARCH 2022 ISSUE: “The Farmer and the Cowherd should be friends,” Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for the 1943 musical Oklahoma! In 1967, Aretha Franklin recorded RESPECT. Five gives you 10 that there is no friendship or respect at the bargaining table where railroad management and workers have been negotiating contract changes since January 2020.

Most Class I railroads and many smaller ones bargain with 12 unions. Talks now guided by the National Mediation Board (NMB) will probably continue until 2022. Railway employment contracts remain in force until they are modified voluntarily or by a third party.

Blame delay and some inconvenience on COVID-19, forcing video conferencing rather than face-to-face negotiation sessions more conducive to building trust.

The main contentions concern Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) – an operating plan to do more with less; workforce reductions; worker availability and discipline policies; unpredictable working hours; the impact on revenues of the decline in coal traffic; pricing power threatened by regulatory activism in the Surface Transportation Board; and the channeling since 2010 of $183 billion to shareholders through dividends and stock buybacks, seen by workers as lavish returns rather than a diminished incentive to reinvest.

Labor wants a 40% pay rise until July 2025, citing the highest consumer price inflation in four decades. Earnings for railroad workers, now averaging $96,000, already exceed 94% of the national workforce.

Another contention is the reform of health care benefits. Railroad workers enjoy generously low copayments and deductibles, don’t contribute to dental and vision care, and pay less than $230 a month for a family plan, just 12% of its costs.

The carriers’ desire to operate – on routes equipped with positive train control (PTC) – one engineer only, where a conductor and engineer are now required by contract, contributes to the bad mood. PTC is a $13 billion, labor-backed safety overlay system to prevent accidents, aimed at eliminating train accidents caused by human factors.

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” -Mike Tyson

A court-ordered arbitration panel in 2021 ruled that the minimum crew size should be negotiated rail-by-rail rather than in national negotiations, as the carriers prefer. A promising starting point for either might be a failed 2014 attempt by the BNSF, which offered a better-paid “conductor” – redeployed from the locomotive cab to a ground position – and a income protection until retirement age for aggrieved conductors.

Labor’s hopes for the government-mandated two-person crews are on life support. A coveted Federal Railway Administration (FRA) the two-person crew mandate was withdrawn after the White House Office of Management and Budget deemed it excessive – the FRA later determined “no regulation of train staffing would is necessary or appropriate for rail operations to be conducted safely at this time.” The FRA said it had no factual evidence to support a minimum crew size mandate.

the California Public Utilities Commission found “a second pair of eyes provides only a minimal improvement in safety.” Los Angeles Metrolink found that two-person crews “can have an unintended adverse effect on safety due to the potential for distraction”. the National Transportation Safety Board does not object to engineering only where PTC is operational. Amtrak and commuter railroads, as well as short lines and regional railroads – and many railroads around the world – operate safely with one-person crews.

Attempts to legislate two-person crews failed even when pro-labor Democrats controlled the House and Senate. While some states have legislation requiring two-person crews if carriers impose contractual changes, the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 requires that railroad safety laws be uniform nationwide, with the Supreme Court stating that States do not have the authority to regulate interstate traffic.

Meanwhile, a rivalry exists between the Brotherhood of Locomotive Train Engineers and Officers (BLET) and the Transportation Division of Sheet Metal, Air, Railroad and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD), representing drivers. In 2001, the BLET unilaterally accepted engineering operations only on the Indiana Railroadand set up, on BNSF, an agreement to increase the wages of engineers when conductor jobs are cut.

Notably, if a Class I railroad unilaterally removes conductors from trains, but continues to pay them – despite current contracts requiring two-person crews – binding arbitration will follow, with history recording that negotiated settlements are preferable to third-party decisions. SMART-TD would be wise to negotiate full driver protection nationwide.

Relations between workers and railroad management can be headaches aplenty, but never dull. To predict an outcome is to ignore former professional boxer Mike Tyson’s advice: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Frank N. Wilner

Capitol Hill editor Frank N. Wilner is the author of six books, including Amtrak: past, present, future; Understanding the Railway Workforce Act; and Railway mergers: history, analysis, overview, all published by Simmons-Boardman Books. His seventh book, “Railroads & Economic Regulation,” is pending publication by Simmons-Boardman Books. Wilner earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in economics and labor relations at Virginia Tech. He served as assistant vice president for policy at the Association of American Railroads; a White House appointed chief of staff to the Surface Transportation Board; and director of public relations for the United Transportation Union. He is a past president of the Association of Transportation Law Professionals. Wilner authored the railroad section of the Heritage Foundation’s Leadership Mandate (Volumes I and II), which were policy blueprints for the two Reagan administrations; and was a guest columnist for the Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine.

Categories: Class I, Commuters/Regionals, Freight, High Performance, Intercity, News, Passengers, Short and Regional Lines, Switching and Terminal
Key words: Amtrak, BNSF, Breaking News, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, California Public Utilities Commission, Federal Railroad Administration, FRA, Indiana Rail Road, Metrolink, National Mediation Board, National Transportation Safety Board, Opinion, SMART-TD, Surface Transportation Board
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