Watch Now

Rail union groups say Presidential Emergency Board recommendations don’t go far enough

‘Truthfully, your union negotiators feel a level of disappointment with the PEB’s recommendations falling short on many of our requests’

Workers inspect railroad track. (Photo: Shutterstock/Stanislaw Mikulski)

Rail union members say the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) “simply chose to kick the can down the road” rather than issue concrete recommendations on how to resolve union and freight railroad contract negotiations. 

The board, appointed by President Joe Biden to oversee stalled labor talks, presented the White House and stakeholders a 124-page report last week listing recommendations on how the railroads and unions can work toward a new labor agreement. The report’s guidance could be used to serve as a foundation for a labor contract between the freight railroads and their unions.

While the Association of American Railroads and the National Carriers Conference Committee (NCCC) — the group responsible for negotiating on behalf of the Class I railroads — last week issued statements on PEB’s proposed wage increases, union representatives have been more cautious in their responses.

Many union members had been hoping that the recommendations would lean more toward their requested wage increases and address working conditions, including attendance policies, more definitively. But instead, PEB’s recommendations tell the unions to go back to the bargaining table or withdraw the union proposals on matters related to working conditions or establishing a work-life balance, according to Railroad Workers United (RWU), an interunion caucus made up of members representing all crafts.

As a result, union leaders are caught between needing contract talks to progress in order to reach an actual contract and knowing that rank-and-file membership may not accept all the recommendations. The unions are expected to work with members to interpret PEB’s recommendations.

“On most of the important and pressing quality of work-life issues — the ones that probably matter the most in terms of job satisfaction, recruitment and retention of railroad workers — the PEB simply chose to kick the can down the road, remanding the carriers and the unions to reach an agreement, something the parties have not been able to do previously for two and a half years now,” RWU said. 

“On questions of attendance policies, work schedules, time off the job, predictability of train lineups, call times, vacations, holidays, sick time and more, the board would recommend that the ‘organization withdraw the proposal’ or ‘remand the matter to the parties to address.’” 

RWU said it would issue its official position on the recommendations later, but the group encouraged members to read PEB’s report.

Jeremy Ferguson, president of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division (SMART-T), said last week in an initial statement PEB’s recommendations didn’t go far enough, both in terms of wage increases and addressing working conditions. 

“Last month, the leaders of the dozen-strong United Rail Unions delivered impassioned and technically sound presentations before the PEB expressing the need for improvements to quality-of-life issues, including addressing the draconian carrier attendance policies and the need for more paid and scheduled time off,” Ferguson said. “However, it would seem as if these were not deemed as key issues. Obviously, our preference was for the PEB to make firm and bold changes to that status quo, but, unfortunately, they deferred and moved these important issues back to the domain of arbitration.”

He continued, “Truthfully, your union negotiators feel a level of disappointment with the PEB’s recommendations falling short on many of our requests — especially as it split the difference between what labor and the carriers were seeking from a wage perspective, rather than choosing one over the other.” 

Ferguson also said SMART-TD would be evaluating the report with other rail unions and gathering input from members. The unions will be meeting with the National Railway Labor Conference, the group representing the unions during negotiations, over whether a tentative agreement can be reached. 

Meanwhile, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way – Employes Division (BMWED) said in a statement last Thursday that it would be meeting with NCCC to discuss the recommendations and, if an agreement can be reached, how to implement them. If that happens, the agreement would be sent out to membership for ratification.

The unions and the railroads began engaging in talks for a new labor deal in January 2020, but the negotiations failed to progress. A federal mediation board took up the negotiations but released the parties from those efforts earlier this summer. A three-person presidential emergency board, created and appointed by President Biden, became involved in the process and conducted hearings in July and August. The board released a report last week that offered recommendations on how to resolve key issues around compensation and healthcare.

On workplace issues such as train crew size, the board recommended that parties negotiate these issues at the local level.

“There are significant questions about whether the board has the authority to address [the] crew consist [makeup of a train crew] process at all,” PEB said. “The matter is clearly one that, while of great importance, has time and time again been recognized to be a local issue under the [Railway Labor Act].”

The parties are now engaging in a 30-day cooling-off period during which both sides will look at the recommendations. That cooling-off period will end in mid-September, although parties could agree to additional cooling-off periods if they believe they are warranted. 

Despite a lack of addressing work-life balance and the train crew size issue, PEB proposed annual wage increases that would run for five years, starting in 2020. Per NCCC, wages would increase by 24% during the five-year period from 2020-24, with a 14.1% wage increase becoming effective immediately. 

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

Subscribe to FreightWaves’ e-newsletters and get the latest insights on freight right in your inbox.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.


  1. Richard Dunn

    As a railroad engineer my self and most of my co workers feel the peb let us down . And if quality of life issues , are not addressed , we will vote no . These professionals and law makers , have a quality of life but deny our right to one . We are on call 24 hours a day 5 days one week 6 the next . We have no leave time for Dr. Visits , or care for our loved ones . Why would the peb think this no big deal . Because they have all the time they need ,

    1. Frank Barnes

      My father was a life time rail employee and my stepMother retired from some 47 years rail service with the Northern Pacific. I retired from the railroad in 1968. Although I was a union stewart for a few years, I never felt my having to belong to a union was right but my Dad felt differently.

      As I dressed to go to work at 99 Spring St., Atlanta, in about 1955, my Dad commented that, “Had in not been for rail unions, you would not be putting on a white shirt to go to work for a railroad.” He was right.

      However, times change. During my rail career in both rail operations and sales, getting new business was a constant quest of those who managed Southern, Northern Pacific, Seaboard and Seaboard-CoastLine. That seems to have changed.

      I say rail management’s quest for new business has lessened based on the fact that in the 50’s and 60’s, as container freight grew we constantly sought new off rail shippers and receivers; however, as business grew rail management closed smaller container yards and concentred on extremely large shippers.

      Rail management is currently overlooking a tremendous opportunity to grow their overall container business from smaller shippers/receivers. This is my opinion based on my conversation with the President of one of the few remaining railroad a couple of years ago when my little trucking company offered a measly 250 containers annually only to be told there was no interest in such a small volume.

      As rails move toward more automation and their desire to serve only the big guys, rail unions will decline.

Comments are closed.

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.