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Rail unions want arbitration for stalled negotiations, not payment advances

'You don’t offer temporary proposals if you plan to offer a complete contract settlement’

The Coordinated Bargaining Coalition has rejected the offer from the Class I railroads to advance payments to union members amid an ongoing impasse at the negotiating table. 

The coalition, which represents the 10 rail unions negotiating with the Class I railroads over a new labor agreement, on Monday reiterated its stance from January that arbitration would be the best step moving forward. At that time, the unions applied to the National Mediation Board (NMB) for a federal mediator because of the perceived deadlock.

The unions have been negotiating with the National Carriers Conference Committee (NCCC), the group representing the Class I railroads, since January 2020. At issue are health care, the role that technology might play in modifying existing operations and train crew size. 

The offer by the NCCC entails monthly payments of up to $600 between May and the end of the year — or whenever a negotiated wage settlement is reached. The advance payments would be deducted from any retroactive lump sum or future pay increases that may be agreed upon in national bargaining.

NCCC said Friday the advance payments would address impacts that rail employees have encountered from the COVID-19 pandemic. They are being offered because the contract negotiations have taken a long time and there is no immediate end in sight, according to NCCC.

But in a Monday statement, the union coalition panned the offer. 

“This latest proposal, somewhere between a loan and a payday advance, is just further evidence that the NCCC has no intentions of reaching a voluntary settlement anytime soon.  You don’t offer temporary proposals if you plan to offer a complete contract settlement,” the Coordinated Bargaining Coalition said, adding that the Class I railroads have profited millions during the fourth quarter of 2021 and the first quarter of 2022.

The group continued, “As we advised in January, we had hoped that the involvement of the NMB would cause the industry to refocus on addressing the legitimate needs of the men and women whose labor generates their positive financial returns. That has not happened, and there is no indication that it will without allowing the remaining steps of the Railway Labor Act to play out to compel a favorable settlement.”

Union coalition members have filed requests with NMB for a federal mediator per the next steps outlined in the Railway Labor Act. Should either party reject arbitration, then a 30-day cooling off period would occur before any party could exercise self-help, the coalition said. 

In January, 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.

NCCC also said in January 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. 

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division said over the weekend that it was skeptical of NCCC’s offer. 

In response to the union coalition’s rejection of the advance payments offer, NCCC said Monday afternoon that it would still hold the proposal open for further consideration.

“Even if the parties reach tentative agreements promptly, those agreements generally must be ratified by the union membership before they become effective and payments can be made. It can take a number of months for the ratification process to be completed and for payments due under the agreements to be calculated and processed,” NCCC said. “As a result, the railroads believe that regardless of when tentative agreements are reached, the monthly advance payment proposal is the best way to put money in employees’ hands 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.