WASHINGTON D.C. — A federal judge has decided that crew size will be part of the debate during the upcoming round of national bargaining set to begin this week, and unions say they will work together to protect two-person crews.
Late last year, eight major freight railroads filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Northern Texas arguing that the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division, also known as SMART-TD, was refusing to negotiate on the issue of crew size [See “Railroads accuse union of refusing to negotiate on crew size,” Trains News Wire, Oct. 7, 2019]. The railroad argued that crew size had to be part of national bargaining, which begins on Wednesday, and the union said it should be negotiated at the local level. On Feb. 11, a judge ruled in favor of the railroads.
The decision deals a major blow to the union coalition going into what is expected to be a contentious round of bargaining. Last year, the railroads made it clear their desire for one-man crews [See “Class I roads make official their desire for one-man crews,” Trains News Wire, Nov. 5, 2019]. Despite the decision, union officials with the two largest groups — the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and SMART — say they remain united and will “act in solidarity” in the coming weeks.
“Any attempt to drive a wedge between our organizations in order to get officers and members alike to disregard the goal at hand — preserving two on the operating crew — plays into the carriers’ hands,” writes SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson. “It gets them closer to what they want: Fewer workers, more money in their pockets, a less-safe (cheaper) work environment and weakens all of rail labor. Two unions with members and with leadership going in opposite directions would make it easier for carriers to accomplish their goal of eradicating jobs in favor of their idea of ‘innovation.’”
Ferguson adds that the upcoming negotiations and battle over crew size could be the “most critical moment in rail labor history.”
National bargaining between the Class I railroads and labor groups happens every five years and is governed by the Railway Labor Act, a 93-year-old law meant to try and avoid major railroad strikes that could cripple the economy. If the railroads and the unions are unable to come to an agreement, the National Mediation Board can step in and help forge an agreement. If that doesn’t work, the independent government agency offers binding arbitration. If either side refuses arbitration, a 30-day “cooling off” period begins. After a month, unions can go on strike or railroads can lock employees out. If the dispute threatens to impact interstate commerce, the president can establish a board to investigate the issue and Congress can force a settlement.
The previous contract does not have an expiration date so there is no deadline for negotiations. Talks can continue for as long as both sides believe progress is being made. The last round of talks began in January 2015 and ended three years later.
The Class Is participating in the talks include BNSF Railway, CSX Transportation, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific and the U.S. railroads owned directly or indirectly by Canadian National.