When you get a good deal, take it

Written by Frank N. Wilner, Capitol Hill Contributing Editor

Arbitrator Robert O. Harris told the United Transportation Union (UTU) and railroads in 1991, then unable to agree at the bargaining table, “Welcome to the oldest established craps game in Washington. Like the suckers in ‘Guys and Dolls,’ you are risking your futures on the roll of the dice [when you fail to make a voluntary agreement].”

Intransigence then in collective bargaining over crew consist—the number of workers assigned to a train—didn’t turn out well for the UTU, which represented four of the then typical five-person crew. Technology had rendered three of the on-board jobs unnecessary for safety, while high labor costs were chasing freight to lower-cost, non-union truckers, threatening all railroad jobs.

After the National Mediation Board released the parties under provisions of the Railway Labor Act, Presidential Emergency Board No. 219 (PEB) recommended binding arbitration if voluntary settlements, accompanied by cash bonuses, were not reached, railroad-by-railroad, within nine months. The UTU, refusing to yield a single job, rejected binding arbitration and went on strike.

As Democrats then controlled the House and Senate, the UTU envisioned a labor friendly legislated outcome.

In fact, every Democrat on the House Rail Subcommittee voted to impose the PEB recommendations. The entire House voted 400-5 to impose them, while the Senate did so by voice vote.

Labor’s staunchest ally, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), called the vote “good for business, good for the economy, and good for the nation.” Rep. Al Swift (D-Wash.) said he had “never seen an issue resolved with so little partisan politics.” The UTU’s devastated chief lobbyist, James Brunkenhoefer, called it “a bloody shirt that is going to be waved around for some time.”

Rather than continue the fight and risk losing more, the UTU settled, accepting crew consists of one conductor and one engineer, still in force on Class I railroads. The job losses occurred at greater personal cost than if settlements were made early. Those crew consist agreements soon will expire. Modern technology portends against their extension.

BNSF and a general committee of the Transportation Division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union (SMART) seek to avoid a “bloody shirt” replay, with a tentative agreement offering every ground-service employee unprecedented blanket protection against furlough, substantially higher wages, and lucrative buyouts if crew consist is modernized voluntarily. Those who made the deal understand new technology cannot be obstructed, but can be managed with innovative agreements to protect workers’ financial security. Indeed, a decade ago, a farsighted UTU chose not to fight introduction of remote control in yard operations. Shrewdly negotiating job security and higher pay, the union told members, “We’d rather tell you why you are using remote control than explaining why you lost the jobs.”

The UTU, now SMART, was the loudest voice encouraging Congress to mandate Positive Train Control (PTC)—a $12 billion industry investment that makes an on-board conductor unnecessary for safety. Even without PTC, Amtrak, commuter/regional railroads, and many freight regionals and short lines operate engineer-only in the cab, and with enviable safety records.

In exchange for obtaining flexibility in assigning jobs, BNSF offers career-long income protection for ground service employees—30 years or more for the newly hired—higher pay, and a Master Conductor craft monitoring PTC-equipped trains for safety compliance from a fixed or mobile location rather than on board the train. Contract language memorializes that conductors are in charge of train operation.

A perceptive SMART general committee envisions that when existing crew consist agreements begin expiring soon, and PTC is implemented, carriers unilaterally will remove conductors, triggering a PEB. And if the recommendations are similar to those of PEB No. 219, and a strike follows?

The November elections likely will extend anti-labor Republican control of the House. Pollsters says Republicans have a good probability to retake the Senate. In a political environment increasingly influenced by younger technophiles oft suspicious of labor unions, undertaking to undermine the surge of new technology by seeking help out of Washington, D.C. is a fool’s errand.

But assume the regulatory or legislative process does mandate a two-person crew. That outcome is less beneficial to conductors and their families than the BNSF tentative agreement, as the second person in the cab could well be an assistant engineer, rather than a conductor, as engineers are qualified also as conductors.

For sure, job security in today’s uncertain economic environment should be the uppermost ambition of every family struggling with a mortgage, car payment, increasing grocery costs and college tuition. Such blanket furlough and income protection as BNSF is offering thousands of ground service workers is unprecedented. Turn it down? In expectation of what, instead? Good grief. Every other ground service worker on BNSF—on every other railroad—should be wishing for a similar deal and clamoring that their elected union leaders negotiate one for them to ratify.

Successful labor leaders like former UTU International President Paul C. Thompson know: When you get a good deal, take it. Thompson wrote to SMART-Transportation Division International Representative John W. Babler and General Chairperson Randall S. Knutson expressing his support:

“I have had the pleasure of reading the proposed Crew Consist Agreement and Wage and Rule Settlement recently negotiated on a large portion of BNSF Railway. Both of you along with the various Assistant and Associate Chairpersons are to be congratulated on an agreement that goes beyond any protection agreement that I have observed.

“Over the past several years there has been an outpouring from numerous groups, including our Legislative Department, promoting Positive Train Control (PTC). The BNSF has taken the lead in installing this equipment on many of its territories. Instead of waiting and then having to be reactive in trying to salvage any damage that could come from this new technology, each of you has been very proactive and addressed the situation head-on in order to protect the membership you represent. That is true leadership that is hard to find in this day and age.

“I recognize that in addition to supporting PTC, our union is also trying to obtain legislation for a minimum of a two-person crew. This fact in and of itself recognizes that with PTC comes a serious threat to the possibility of losses to SMART-represented jobs. While everyone hopes to see such legislation, the fact remains that with the current Congress and the action of our government in Washington, D.C., nothing is getting addressed, let alone anything that would be of favor to working families.

“Each of you has been successful in negotiating the better of two worlds. Should legislation pass for the requirement of two-person crews, in Article VII, your Agreement provides for a Snap-Back back to your original Agreements. That is covering all bases.

“We all do not like changes, but such will always come about. It wasn’t that long ago that each train crew had 5 and sometimes 6 crewmembers along with a caboose. First the railroads went after the firemen’s craft, and through legislation the carriers were successful in eliminating all firemen with less than 10 years seniority. I was one of those firemen and realized then that you cannot count on legislation to protect your jobs. Then came the first generation of crew consist [agreements] followed by second, third, and sometime fourth generation of crew consists, all with the intent of the carriers eliminating more crews. This was followed by first eliminating the cabooses, thus placing the rear brakeman and conductor on the head end. Again, the carriers took advantage of this situation to eliminate more positions.

“Don’t think for a minute that the carriers are not looking down the road to take the same advantage of PTC technology. You each have seen the future and rightfully have jumped ahead of the game for the benefit of our membership.

“No doubt there will be those that criticize your efforts, but what are their options? You have eliminated all entry rates, provided protection for all your current ground service employees, obtained a Scope Rule for the future and restored jobs that had been previously lost, and provided a Snap-Back if two-person crews are legislated. You each have not only hit a home run, you have hit a grand slam.

“I am very proud of each of you, for your willingness to do what is right for SMART members, and while there will be changes to some jobs, they will belong to SMART employees with full protection.”

Indeed, when you get a good deal, take it.

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