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NewsRail

Federal judge orders rail union to negotiate on train crew size

A federal judge has ruled that a rail labor union representing train conductors must start negotiating with the U.S. Class I railroads on the issue of train crew staffing. The parties began their latest round of collective bargaining on Nov. 1, 2019.

Judge Mark T. Pittman of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas ruled on Tuesday that the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, Transportation Division (SMART-TD) must begin bargaining with the railroads on the proposals regarding train consists — the people who move the train — per the Railroad Labor Act (RLA).

The U.S operations of the seven Class I railroads brought the lawsuit before the court last October.

The National Railway Labor Conference (NRLC), a group representing the railroads, said Tuesday’s decision allows the rail industry to discuss train crew staffing and the deployment of train conductors in light of new safety and operational technologies.

“The court ruling allows for serious discussions over all aspects of crew staffing,” said Brendan Branon, chairman of the NRLC and the National Carriers’ Conference Committee, the bargaining representative for the major U.S. freight railroads. “The industry wants to work collaboratively with SMART-TD to shape a future, ground-based role of the conductor, and this ruling brings the parties to the bargaining table to begin those discussions now.”

The union argued during the suit that provisions in the existing labor agreements barred discussion of proposals to reduce train crew size, according to the ruling.

But Pittman ruled that the union was violating the RLA by refusing to bargain “in good faith.”

In his 22-page decision, he acknowledged broader concerns that a reduction in crew size might endanger a train carrying hazardous materials but said the lawsuit wasn’t the proper venue to analyze that.

“While the Court finds this argument compelling, it is ultimately unconvincing at the preliminary injunction stage because the injunctive relief here does not permit an immediate reduction of crew size, but merely compels SMART-TD to begin good-faith negotiating over crew size proposals,” the ruling said.

“Thus, if SMART-TD is correct — and it may be correct — that a reduction in crew consist would cause significant safety issues, any such harm would not occur even if the Court enters injunctive relief in favor of the railroads. Finally, by facilitating bargaining and increasing the chances of settlement, the public is served by the prevention of a strike,” the ruling continued.

SMART-TD said Thursday it had filed an appeal the day before with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

“Unfortunately, this decision comes as no surprise. The court ignored the provisions of the RLA,” SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said. “The judge sided with the carriers on every issue, not even recognizing our arguments or providing any real analysis. It is simply infuriating.”

SMART-TD also said it has sued the National Mediation Board for granting a request by the NRLC to appoint an arbitration board member to oversee arbitration on more than two dozen crew-consist agreements that have been negotiated locally.

The issue of train crew size has been in debate over the past several months, as several state legislatures, the latest being Oklahoma’s, have proposed bills requiring train crews consisting of at least two members, even though the Federal Railroad Administration last May withdrew a notice of proposed rulemaking on establishing train crew sizes, saying state laws that mandated crew sizes have been voided.

The rail industry has said establishing the size of a train crew is a discussion more appropriate for the bargaining table and that technologies such as positive train control will enable rail operations to be even safer. Meanwhile, union leaders have said a train crew size of at least two people enables safer operations, especially as trains become longer.

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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.

5 Comments

    1. That judge was totally in favor of the companies, no doubt in someones pocket. Pretty suspicious on how that bozo ruled against all points. Smooth move, here’s a classic example on why people have no respect for the bs law. Hey your highness, try and use your head to what problems that will be created by this and you’re party to.

  1. As a railroader for more than 20 years an engineer for most of that time one man crew is the most dangerous thing the rail industry could do . In frieght service we are subject to call 24/7 . You cant always be fully rested. Having another person to help with responsibility is very important. People need to understand this is only to increase profits not safety. Who will go back when you need to open up a crossings ? Dont let the railroads put public safety in harm’s way.

  2. Judges can be bought, lobbying is widespread and out in the open. Safety in my opinion is being ignored while profits are the forefront. Now Trainmen and Engine employees have to stick together and start performing their jobs at the best of their abilities. Railroad employees this is what cab cameras are all about. Cameras in the locomotives are for you elimination, not for your safety or quality insurance. Just do your best job everyday, help your fellow employee to stay focused on the task, for the scrutiny camera is always in view. Call your lawmakers and demand Safety for the public. We have a long fight ahead, and this fight won’t be an easy one..

    1. I like to see those cameras walk a 2 mile train with air hose and wrench in hand when the train losses the air, hits a hbd or ded or replace a knuckle, set out s bad order, stop and protect a crossing, the list goes on….

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