Friday, October 06, 2017

Can labor deal survive a social media attack?

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Can labor deal survive a social media attack?

A tentative national agreement on wages, benefits and work rules has been reached between major railroads and seven of their 13 labor unions. Almost two-dozen unionized regionals and short lines also are participating in the talks.

It could be some 60 days before a rank-and-file ratification vote on the tentative contract is tallied. Meanwhile, the other six unions will continue bargaining under guidance of the National Mediation Board.

Even if the tentative agreement is rejected, a work stoppage prior to mid-March 2018 is unlikely, as the Railway Labor Act—a manual of industrial relations peace—is structured to lock parties in federally mediated open-ended, productive bargaining in search of middle ground. Subsequent involvement of a Presidential Emergency Board, making non-binding recommendations for settlement, adds another 90 days to the process if federal mediators declare a bargaining impasse.

The wage increases in the tentative agreement are 12.5% (13.1%, compounded) over its five year term—retroactive to Jan. 1, 2015 and running through Dec. 31, 2019.

The tentative agreement caps, through at least Dec. 31, 2019, a monthly $228.89 healthcare insurance premium paid by unionized rail employees—a premium well below what is now paid by the vast majority of private-sector and government employees, who most likely will see their healthcare insurance premiums rise in coming years. The cap remains in place until the next agreement is negotiated, which could be well into, or beyond, 2020.

While healthcare co-pays, deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums under the tentative agreement rise—actually an advantage for healthier workers and families consuming less healthcare—they stay, even for the less healthy, meaningfully below what is paid by non-rail workers. In fact, an estimated 90% of employee healthcare costs will remain the burden of railroads, which is exceptional among employers.

Notably, the contract provides for no changes in work rules, meaning, for example, individual carriers will not seek agreements to operate one-person train crews, expand remote control operations, or impose other changes threatening job security—at least not before Jan. 1, 2020.

The seven unions with the tentative agreement, representing 85,000 employees, or 60% of the 145,000 rail workers subject to the talks, have been negotiating through one of three labor bargaining coalitions. The carriers coordinate their bargaining through the National Carriers’ Conference Committee.

Those seven unions will put the tentative agreement out for rank-and-file ratification sometime in November. The ratification process, which generally allows several weeks for study of the agreement prior to membership voting, follows receipt of questions about its provisions from general chairpersons, which will be answered in writing jointly by the union and carrier negotiators, and then communicated to all members. Vote tallies are not expected before mid-December.

The seven unions with the tentative agreement are the American Train Dispatchers Association; Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen; Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen; International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers; National Conference of Firemen and Oilers; and both the Yardmasters Division and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.

Major railroads negotiating with the three union coalitions are BNSF, CSX, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific, as well as CN subsidiaries Grand Trunk Western, Illinois Central and Wisconsin Central. Canadian Pacific subsidiary Soo Line is not a party. Numerous regional and short lines also are party to the talks—some for both wages and benefits; others for benefits only.

The other two labor coalitions and their six unions still at the bargaining table are the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, Transportation Communications International Union, and four smaller shopcraft organizations.

The tentative agreement, if ratified by even just a few of the seven unions sending it out for a vote, would set a pattern difficult to break at the bargaining table, and to which Presidential Emergency Boards tend to give substantial weight when making non-binding recommendations for settlement by other unions. Allowing leapfrogging by a truculent union is bad form in labor-management relations.

As only the National Mediation Board may release parties from collective bargaining, any of the seven unions not ratifying the tentative agreement will return to the bargaining table. Those ratifying it will immediately be under its terms.

Should one or more Presidential Emergency Boards eventually be appointed, it will be by a Republican White House, meaning the PEB could be less favorable to labor’s positions. And were PEB non-binding recommendations unable to produce voluntary settlements, Congress typically acts within hours to end a work stoppage by imposing its own settlement—often similar to PEB recommendations.

Third-party determinations are rarely hailed by either party. Even typically labor-friendly Democratic congressional majorities have been known to be harsher toward labor than PEBs when imposing a solution—especially in an election year, as 2018 will be. What should be especially worrisome to labor is the current conservative Republican congressional majority, which is unlikely to take labor’s side in writing legislation ending a work stoppage.

Some may consider the wage boosts modest—but they are not when compared with other American industry agreements. Rather than letting modest wage boosts snuff euphoria,  this agreement’s freeze on healthcare insurance premiums and not a single change in work rules create a radiance begging for ratification.

There will, however, for a variety of reasons, be factions—many outlandish—opposed to this tentative agreement, and they will have access to a relatively new and formidable mass communications device—social media, which can be employed effectively to spread dissent and misinformation.

As railroads operate the largest outdoor, mostly unsupervised shop floor in the nation, effective, fact-based communication between union leadership and the rank-and-file can be problematic.

How labor unions share with their members’ accurate answers to questions about the tentative agreement, and prevent it from being taken hostage and drowned in a cesspool of falsehoods unfurled by nefarious operatives practiced in the art of social media, could well determine this tentative agreement’s fate.

Frank N. Wilner, Contributing Editor

Frank N. Wilner is author of six books, including, Amtrak: Past, Present, Future; Understanding the Railway Labor Act; and, Railroad Mergers: History, Analysis, Insight. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in economics and labor relations from Virginia Tech. He has been assistant vice president, policy, for the Association of American Railroads; a White House appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board; and director of public relations for the United Transportation Union. He is a past president of the Association of Transportation Law Professionals. Wilner drafted the railroad section of the Heritage Foundation’s Mandate for Change (Volumes I and II), which were policy blueprints for the two Reagan Administrations; and was a guest columnist for the Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine.

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