“Seems like the members are ready to fight” — Leading Rail Union Dissident Talks Contract

Mike McCallister

November 14, 2022

In the weeks since leaders of the two largest unions representing railroad workers signed a tentative agreement with the biggest employers of rail labor, they haven’t persuaded their members. The White House is nervous.

The tentative agreement (TA) brokered by Joe Biden and his Labor Secretary, Marty Walsh, to keep freight moving on the rails and keeping the supply chain humming, is facing substantial resistance from rank-and-file rail workers.

The TA negotiated between the employers’ National Carriers Conference Committee and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Sheet Metal Air Rail Transport (SMART) Transportation Division is a five-year contract. Most of the corporate media headlines focused on the base pay increase totaling 24 percent over the length of the contract, but noting the failure to resolve what are called “quality of life” issues.

In June, the leaders of the 12 independent unions representing the various crafts promised to present a united front at the table, the United Rail Unions (URU), to take advantage of the pro-union sentiment in the country, and the weak bargaining position of management.

The URU fell apart when the PEB report came out. Leaders of the smallest unions quickly signed deals with their employers. Most of their members also fell in line. Exceptions being the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, and the rail branch of the Machinists’ union. The unruly machinists were quickly asked whether the brokered TA is acceptable.

Ron Kaminkow, who is a leader of Railroad Workers United (RWU), a cross-union opposition caucus, thinks rail labor has reached a crossroads with this contract.

“Seems like the members are ready to fight for the quality of life issues,” Kaminkow said.

While the 24 percent raise in wages over the next five years might sound like a victory at the bargaining table for these unions, the employers refused even an inch on the quality of life issues viewed as central by rail workers.

All of this is in the context of massive profits in the railroad industry. BNSF reported nearly $6 billion in net income in 2021, and the industry as a whole spent $10 billion in stock buybacks and dividends in the first six months of 2022. At the same time, around 45,000 jobs have been lost in the industry in the last six years.

What are these quality of life issues so central to this fight? Read this “help wanted ad” from worker safety writer Jordan Barab:

Come work for the railroad. It’s a great job, decent pay. Hours may be a bit long. You’ll spend weeks at a time away from home in cheap motels and miss important family events, kids sports games, birthdays, recitals and vacations, weddings and funerals. You can get called up at any time, so don’t even try to make plans. Stay healthy because you’ll be punished or even fired for an unexpected medical event. Also, great pension… if you live that long.

Chief among the quality of life issues are scheduling, medical appointments, and time off.

These topics were once the least contentious issue in rail negotiations. Kaminkow said. While there was never any formal sick leave, vacation time or similar personal time off (PTO) in the railroad industry, “workers always could call in to be ‘taken off the board,’ for any period of time, even a month, no questions asked.” High wages in the industry made this arrangement practical for both workers and management.

“Then these new attendance policies were introduced, part of the Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) belt-tightening.” Workers are expected to be available for work, waiting for a call 24×7. There’s a point system for excessive absences that can lead to discipline, suspensions and firing. This leads to workers coming in when they’re sick, and not seeing doctors.

PSR dates back to the 1990s, where management aims for more “efficient” movement of freight by cutting back on equipment (like cabooses and locomotives) and, especially, crew sizes. Today most freight trains run with two crew members, and the drive is to cut that number in half. Meanwhile, the cutbacks in equipment leads to much longer trains (some trains are up to three miles-long). A 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office noted that “trains may block traffic more often at road-crossings, impeding emergency responders and prompting unsafe pedestrian behavior (such as climbing through stopped trains). (For workers), braking and other operations can also be more complex for these longer trains.”

PSR is great for rail company profits, but also angered some other significant players. The companies that ship freight complain that PSR has led to lost cars and late deliveries. Rail passengers, who are second-class citizens in scheduling on the rails owned by the carriers, can never get to their destinations on time. Then, of course, there are the workers.

Quality of life is the main reason why workers are leaving the industry altogether. “The money may not be as good (as in rail), but there’s some predictability,” Kaminkow says.

The government role

Contract negotiations in the railroad and airline industries are carefully governed by the Railway Labor Act of 1926. The act specifies every step in the negotiating process. Among the steps required to resolve contract disputes is the convening of a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) with power to recommend terms of a settlement.

While workers have the legal right to strike if they don’t accept the PEB recommendations, they must first wait out a 30-day “cooling-off period,” designed to permit bargaining after a strike vote. This period also allows management to better prepare for a stoppage.

The PEB report of August 16 had nothing to recommend on the quality of life issues.

What happens next?

As of mid-October, two unions have rejected the contract agreement, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way workers and the International Association of Machinists, District 19. In addition, IAM District 19 members authorized a strike in September. The IAM district represents Locomotive Machinists, Track Equipment Mechanics and Facility Maintenance Personnel.

Six smaller unions have ratified the deal, and the Machinists are being asked again by their leadership to ratify the brokered deal. The two largest unions that sat in the White House and relied on the president and his Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to cajole management into something “reasonable” are voting now, with results expected on November 17.

When members refuse to ratify the tentative agreement (TA), the “cooling-off” period begins. A strike could begin in early December. Historically, if any of the rail unions strike, the rest follow honor the action. At any point after the strike begins, Congress can intervene to break the strike, implement the PEB report, or otherwise define contract provisions.

The smaller unions that came to an agreement earlier based on the PEB report have a “me too” clause, Kaminkow said. If the deal with the BLET and SMART unions is ratified, that becomes the master contract. “They can get the benefits gained by the unions that fought harder,” Kaminkow said.

See RWU’s current status report on the state of ratification.

Uniting Rail Labor

RWU was founded in 2008 to organize to unify rail workers much like Eugene V. Debs built the American Railway Union at the end of the 19th century.

Kaminkow tells this story:

I was at a Labor Day event, where RWU had a table. A teacher friend asked why it was so difficult to get contracts in rail. I told her it was like if you went to bargain a contract with your (school district), except there were separate unions for social studies teachers, art teachers, music teachers, and science teachers. “That’s insane!” she said. Exactly.

RWU is organizing during this contract fight to stop the insanity, for unity, solidarity and democracy.

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