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Labor, railroads tussle over contract negotiation ‘dead end,’ seek mediation

Talks have been underway since January 2020

Rail unions and the railroads support having a federal mediator negotiate a new labor contract. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Ten rail unions have declared an impasse with U.S. freight railroads over bargaining for a new labor agreement and have asked the National Mediation Board (NMB) for a federal mediator to assist with negotiations — a move the railroads support.

The Coordinated Bargaining Coalition (CBC), which consists of the unions, said discussions stalled after more than two years of bargaining. Because of the stalemate, the coalition is seeking a mediator, per the Railway Labor Act.

The unions said the National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC), the body representing the labor interests of U.S.-based Class I rail operations in the talks, is not bargaining “in good faith,” which has led to a “dead end” with negotiations.

“The carriers have not made a comprehensive settlement proposal that we believe our members would even remotely entertain. In fact, the Carriers’ latest proposal is worse than bad faith; it is insulting,” the unions said in a Monday release.

“After carrying our nation through the pandemic, and as the carriers have posted record-breaking profit margins due to their implementation of so-called ‘Precision Scheduled Railroading’ practices, our members have earned, and rightfully expect, a substantial contract settlement that recognizes the sacrifices they and their families make each day. Instead, the Carriers continue to push proposals that fail to even catch up to the cost of living,” the unions continued. 

“From the beginning of this round of negotiations, the CBC has adamantly refused to accept any type of concessionary agreement. Instead, the railroads continue to demand extreme changes to our members’ current benefits and attempt to unilaterally impose work rule changes that would further erode our members’ already-taxed standard of living,” CBC said.

Meanwhile, the NCCC said it supports the unions’ actions seeking a mediator. However, it countered that its proposals seek to “modernize” labor agreements and “leverage transformational technologies — including developments in automation and safety — to manage long-term structural changes in rail traffic.”

“From the outset, the railroads have maintained that this bargaining round presents a unique opportunity for the parties to work together and reach voluntary agreements that address challenges and opportunities facing the freight rail industry for the benefit of all stakeholders, including rail employees,” said NCCC Chairman Brendan Branon. “The railroads believe in the collective bargaining process and will continue negotiating in good faith to reach voluntary agreements with the CBC unions. In that regard, the railroads welcome the NMB’s assistance and look forward to their discussions with the CBC and the NMB.”

The deadlock comes as the broader freight rail industry is grappling with a number of issues that could affect rail employees, including whether one-person train crews should be permitted and how automation might affect duties down the road. 

Health care is another area of disagreement between the unions and the railroads, with the railroads saying that they’re seeking to reach agreements on a fair compensation and benefit package for rail workers that “modernize the national railroad health plan and also update certain outdated work rules that, in some cases, have not been revised in decades.”

Furthermore, the negotiations have been occurring at a time when the supply chain is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, which itself has highlighted labor shortages across parts of the U.S. rail network and the issue of workplace safety and protections against COVID-19. 

The unions’ bargaining proposal is available here, while NCCC directed those interested in its proposals to NCCC’s website

Members of the union coalition are the 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.

NCCC said the contract negotiations are designed to minimize service disruptions, per the Railway Labor Act. The contracts don’t have expiration dates, so there is no fixed deadline to complete negotiations, although there are steps — including seeking a federal mediator — that can be taken if negotiations reach a standstill. Strikes and other work stoppages are prohibited during the process, according to NCCC.

Since the unions have just applied for the assignment of a mediator, it’s unclear when NMB will approve that request.

NCCC also said it is already in mediation over labor agreements with a second coalition consisting of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — Mechanical Division.

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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.