No Work Stoppage for Now

Written by Frank N. Wilner, Capitol Hill Contributing Editor
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It took an all-night bargaining session in the Washington, D.C., offices of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, but as dawn approached Thursday, Sept. 15, three rail unions, representing almost 60% of unionized rail workers and which had been holding out for a better deal than was reached by nine others, came to terms with the National Carriers Conference Committee (NCCC) that represents most of the nation’s Class I railroads and many smaller ones.

It means there will be no nationwide rail work stoppage beginning Friday, Sept. 16, or for the next few weeks, but the threat of a management lockout or labor strike is not over as memberships of only two of the 12 unions have so far ratified tentative agreements.   

All tentative agreements, however, contain “me too” clauses, meaning the sweeteners reached during the all-night bargaining session will apply across the board. They also will be offered to one union that has rejected a tentative deal accepted by its leadership, with expectation that its members will ratify on a second attempt.  

For almost 20 hours until just after 5 a.m. Sept. 15, Walsh locked horns with the negotiating teams of the NCCC, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET); the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD); and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen. The labor side steadfastly insisted that their members, who operate most of the nation’s freight trains and maintain the signal systems, would not ratify a tentative agreement that did not include improvements in health care benefits, including sick leave.  

Around midnight, the NCCC backed-off its insistence that it would not budge from non-binding recommendations made some 30 days ago by a Joe Biden-appointed Presidential Emergency Board. For the next five hours, Walsh worked both sides of the negotiating table to extract compromise from both sides on the sweeteners. Timely delivery of deli sandwiches and Italian entrees helped keep the parties seated during otherwise often animated conversations.  

As is common in high-stakes collective bargaining sessions, tempers flared, but Walsh—a former Boston mayor, Massachusetts House member and president of the Laborers’ International Union—said in a 5:30 a.m. tweet, “Our rail system is integral to our supply chain, and a disruption would have had catastrophic impacts on industries, travelers and families across the country.”  

For much of Sept. 14, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese joined Walsh in working the negotiating table to head off what would have been the first nationwide rail shutdown in more than three decades. Buttigieg tweeted at 6:30 a.m., “We thank the labor unions and railroad companies for staying at the table and avoiding a destructive shutdown by reaching a deal that benefits all parties.” Also present was National Mediation Board member Linda Puchala.

Rail and labor negotiators left the Labor Department offices just after 5 a.m. Sept. 15, with Biden shortly afterward making the official announcement of the tentative agreement. Biden called it “an important win for our economy and the American people.” The Association of American Railroads had warned that a nationwide rail shutdown would have cost the American economy some $2 billion daily as some 40% of intercity freight move by rail—much of it essential to keeping factory floors and assembly lines operating. 

The NCCC, on behalf of the rail industry, thanked Walsh, Buttigieg and Vilsack “for their assistance in reaching these settlements,” and despite 33 months of contentious and often bitter bargaining, also thanked “the unions’ leadership teams for their professionalism and efforts during the bargaining process.”  

Significantly, the threat of a work stoppage is not over, as tentative agreements face ratification votes by rail union members whose mood over the past 33 months of collective bargaining between their leaders and the NCCC has been super sour. 

One union’s members already have rejected a tentative agreement—the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, representing some 5% of the unionized work force affected by this round of collective bargaining over wages, benefits and work rules. The negotiating team of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen had earlier reached a tentative agreement, but a larger governing body of the union declined to authorize it being sent to the membership for a ratification vote. The sweeteners achieved by the signalmen, along with the BLET and SMART-TD, are expected to permit it now to enter the ratification process. 

As the unions with tentative agreements proceed to encourage member ratification, a status quo of no strikes and no lockout will occur. What happens if some unions fail to ratify remains to be seen. There will be no bar against their engaging in a work stoppage at that time—or for the railroads to impose a work stoppage lockout.  

It then would be up to Congress—if it is able—to impose a third-party legislated settlement. As the Sept. 16 threat of a work stoppage or lock out approached earlier this week, Congress was unable to advance legislation that would have sent rail workers back to their jobs. Partisan politics in advance of mid-term congressional elections is the reason. Labor-friendly Democrats, needing union-member votes on Election Day, were insisting that any back-to-work legislation include some of the contract sweeteners now part of the tentative agreements, while many Republicans were refusing to support legislation containing contract sweeteners.  

All the tentative agreements also provide for 24% wage increases over five years through 2024 and retroactive pay and signing bonuses that will put some $11,000 into the pockets of affected union members immediately. “When health care, retirement and other benefits are considered, the value of rail employees’ total compensation package, which already ranks among the highest in the nation, would average more than $150,000 per year,” the NCCC said. Demands by the BLET and SMART-TD for scrapping of individual carrier attendance policies and more predictable work schedules are not included in the tentative national agreements, but are subjects for so-called “local handling.”

In a joint statement, BLET President Dennis Pierce and SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said, “For the first time our unions were able to obtain negotiated contract language exempting time off for certain medical events from carrier attendance policies. [Healthcare plans] will remain unchanged; there will be no increases to copays or deductibles and there are no disruptions to the existing health care networks. After over 20 hours of negotiations, we were able to reach an agreement that freezes our members’ monthly health care contributions at the end of the agreement. No additional increases will apply to our monthly contributions while the parties bargain over the next National Agreement.”

Frank N. Wilner

Frank N. Wilner is author of “Understanding the Railway Labor Act” as well as a former director of public relations for SMART-TD and its United Transportation Union predecessor, an assistant vice president for policy at the Association of American Railroads, and a White House (Bill Clinton) appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board.

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