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2 more freight rail unions reach tentative agreements for new labor contract

IBEW and ATDA to send agreement to members for ratification

Two more rail unions have reached tentative labor agreements with the freight railroads. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Two more railroad unions have reached tentative labor agreements with the U.S. freight railroads right before Labor Day weekend.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the American Train Dispatchers Association (ATDA) both said the labor agreements are based on recommendations from the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), a three-person independent committee appointed by President Joe Biden that sought to come up with ways that the unions and railroads could settle their differences.

The two unions represent about 6,000 freight rail employees, according to the National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC), the group representing the Class I railroads in the contract negotiations. 

So far, five of the 12 railroad unions have reached a tentative agreement, representing a total of more than 21,000 employees, according to the NCCC. The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED) and SMART mechanical unions are bargaining as a coalition. SMART stands for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers.

On Monday, the Transportation Communications Union (TCU)/IAM (International Association of Machinists), Brotherhood of Railway Carmen and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers announced they reached tentative agreements.

Altogether, the unions that have reached agreements represent roughly 15% of the over 140,000 employees at the bargaining table. 

IBEW said its tentative agreement calls for the biggest wage increases in 47 years: a 24% general compounded wage increase —  effective July 1, 2020 — over the next five years and an annual $1,000 service-recognition bonus.

“I want to thank the IBEW’s rail bargaining team members for their hard work and patience in coming to this agreement,” said IBEW International President Lonnie Stephenson in a news release late Thursday. “I also want to acknowledge President Biden and the members of the PEB for their efforts to bring management and labor together to negotiate a fair contract. It’s been a long and tough process, but we’ve finally reached an agreement that achieves more than 70% of what we were asking for, including historic wage gains for our railroad members.

“The freight rail industry is crucial to our economy, and the men and women who keep it moving deserve a fair deal. We didn’t win everything we wanted, but this agreement is a step in the right direction and we recommend [union] members support it.” 

ATDA, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO that represents train dispatchers, said its members would be receiving their ratification budgets in the mail. 

“Our members are going through one of the highest inflationary periods our country has ever experienced, and this agreement provides for good wages,” said ATDA President F. Leo McCann in a Friday news release

In a news release, NCCC said it “would like to thank the unions’ leadership teams for their professionalism and efforts during the bargaining process.”

Per the Railway Labor Act, the remaining unions would be able to legally stage a work stoppage or strike after a cooling-off period ends Sept. 16. 

PEB’s recommendations are meant to serve as a jumping-off point for producing a final contract, so the end result may differ based on what all the sides negotiate.

A new labor deal has been in the works since January 2020, but the negotiations had failed to progress. A federal mediation board took up the negotiations but released the parties from those efforts earlier this summer. The PEB became involved in the process and conducted hearings in July and August. 

BLET, SMART-TD weigh in on negotiations impasse

The tentative five agreements come as two of the larger unions, SMART-Transportation Division and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLET), weigh in on the progress of negotiations.

SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson and BLET President Dennis Pierce issued a joint statement in response to speculation about Congress’ potential role in contract negotiations should the impasse continue. 

“We know there are vastly different opinions amongst our collective memberships on what should happen next, and the democratic principles that drive our unions give each member the right to their own opinion,” according to the statement. “Although current opinions may vary, there are other things that apply equally to us all. It has become clear in our post Presidential Emergency Board [PEB] negotiations with the rail carriers that they are counting on the federal government to come to their aid if we are unable to reach a tentative agreement and so far we have not reached an agreement. … We call on Congress to stay out of our dispute, and if you do, we are confident that the rail carriers will move from their current positions and settle with their employees in a fashion that could be ratified.”

They continued: “We should not fault the unions who have decided to allow their members the right to decide their own fate through a ratification vote. As we reach the end of the Railway Labor Act negotiating process, all of our contracts will soon be settled, one way or the other. … Instead, we will continue to concentrate our efforts on obtaining tentative agreements for our members that are worthy of their consideration.”

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America’s freight railroads are incredibly chaotic right now

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.