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Home / News & Reviews / News Wire / Unions vow to act together after railroads score court win on crew-size negotiations NEWSWIRE

Unions vow to act together after railroads score court win on crew-size negotiations NEWSWIRE

By Justin Franz | February 24, 2020

National bargaining to begin Wednesday

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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.

25 thoughts on “Unions vow to act together after railroads score court win on crew-size negotiations NEWSWIRE

  1. 0-person crews? Don’t go giving them ideas! But in 1989 I saw a mine railroad in Labrador operating on that principle. Every 15 seconds the horn blew; you had to remind yourself there was no one in the cab. If we have autonomous trucks–we’ll have autonomous trains too.

  2. I think Landon Rowell hit the nail on the head.

    I don’t see any difference between the greed of the railroads and the greed of the unions. Both want what they are in business to do – railroads to make as much profit as possible, unions to keep as many as possible employed at as high wages. This should neither be surprising nor castigated.

    Worst case for both would be to go out of business. Then there is neither profits nor jobs.

    The last time a similar situation arrived, where diesel technology allowed longer runs and smaller crews, but the unions insisted on five man crews, both railroads and unions were the losers. Many railroads went out of business when they couldn’t compete with trucks and highways.

  3. My concern is that “acting in solidarity” will result result in the railroads going directly from 2 person crews to 0 person crews for mainline freight – essentially,non-terminal operations will converted to the equivalent of a conveyor belt. The yard hostler will dig the train out of the terminal, roll it out the yard limits, turns it over to Otto, and waves good bye.

  4. Once again the comparison with Amtrak and commuter roads is not valid; there are still at least two people on the train; one in the cab and one or more a few cars back.

  5. Europe operates its trains with one person in the cab, but the trains are about 20 to 30 cars long. Northeast Corridor trains, both Amtrak and commuter also manage to do it safely. It seems reasonable that at some point the railroads will have to acknowledge that one man operation of two mile long trains is just not practical for a long list of reasons, legal costs not being the least. PTC should open the opportunity to run many short mixed freight trains to multiple destinations with one person doing the work. Long and heavy trains need 2 people in the cab. We don’t need another Lac Megantic.

  6. The Australian ore hauling railways (AAR Standards, U.S. pattern locomotives, etc.) have successfully used a single-person crew for ages. Indeed, they’ve also experimented with crewless trains. Yes, there has the occasional accident or incident. But, nothing devastating.

    What’s to be remembered is that few for-profit businesses are also social service service agencies. Thus, the necessity of bringing down all costs while also maximizing profits. The problem is finding what “real economists” (Not ex-bartenders who get elected to Congress, but those who serve in for-profit businesses.) call “point of diminishing marginal returns”. That is, where each additional invested dollar yields progressively lesser returns.

    What could go wrong? Right…

    The Aussie railways are “captive” and single commodity non-hazmat lines running for the most part in isolated, forbidding terrain.

    As for the “driverless trucks”, the tech is still being proved to be fallible. Fatally, in some cases with tests in automobiles, Consider for a moment with railroads, a “Lac Megantic” type disaster on steroids, say in the D.C. or Baltimore tunnels, as an example? The human and economic consequences (not to mention political) fallout could be devastating. For the truckers, the equivalent would be a driverless truck hitting a school bus full of kids. Anyone remember a devastating crash in Kentucky years ago where many kids in a school bus were killed by a DWI driver? That crash was the impetus for much of the DWI laws enacted shortly thereafter. Not just in the individual states, but with national standards applied by Congress. Problem is, lives would be lost with either.

    As for the airlines and the two-person crew requirement? One airliner manufacturer has already shown “Proof-of-Concept” plans for a single pilot passenger airliner. I’m not talking about a single-engine Cessna, either!

    So, what’s the answer?

    First, legislating crew sizes and driver requirements is too “easy” a fix. Remember what happened with cabooses? By allowing elimination to happen at the state level, Virginia’s intransigence was allowed to have an outsize impact relative to its size.

    It can also be argued that this can be addressed by regulation. Perhaps it should be. Especially since different transportation modes are involved. One possible avenue of relief would be to require insurance coverage for the operators of single-crew/crewless trains or driverless trucks so burdensome as to make people cheaper than capital. Or, to entirely forbid insurance coverage, making the railroad or truck operator fully liable from their own resources for damages.

    What about the marketplace? Here’s where the unions are missing the mark! Few businesses survive with unemployed customers. The failure of union leadership to solicit support from the businesses directly and indirectly supported by their members is unconscionable. This includes the shipper customers of the railroads. Many products of rail shippers are potentially purchased by rail employees.

    What nobody wants is is a disaster. Trucking has indeed been blessed to date being free of a deadly major disaster. For rail, Lac Megantic killed 47 people and ended Montreal Maine and Atlantic. For airlines, “Palm 90” killed 74 people and was the beginning of the end of for Air Florida. The disaster potential for a single-crew (or crewless) train or truck could be similarly devastating. What the nation cannot afford is a disaster of the magnitude that would bring down a Class 1 railroad. The trucking industry, while not immune to loss of a trucking line every do often, is more buoyant in that the capacity lost by the ending of one company is easily absorbed by now-former competitors..

    In essence, as with so many other things government has gotten involved with, sometimes it is indeed the closest mankind can get to “fixing stupidity”. The problem is the potential for a “fix” nobody likes.

  7. Do any of you posters even work at one of the greedy class 1s? Well I have for the last 16 years and if the PSR CRAP AKA PONZY SCHEME RAILROADING continues and this one man crew BS Is allowed to happen then my butt will be on the street. You really need to think about the lives all this greed is ruining and remember that two qualified railroaders in the cab is by far the safest way to go. I’ve not known one single engineer that says hell lets give it a shot NO some are scared to death about being out there by themselves with 20000 tons and 15000 ft breathing down their necks. Anybody that thinks that one person crews is a good idea has never sat across from one of his buddies in the cab keeping each other awake on those long nights going from town to town. In the end we will probably lose because the railroads have much deeper pockets that the unions do. Kind of ironic that those pockets are so deep because of all our hard work over years. Kind of screwed ourselves in the end.

  8. If the aviation industry requires 2 people in the flight deck, why should trains be allowed to cut them back to one person in a cab. A train brings hazardous materials into our own backyards and through our popular towns. Air planes don’t even do that! ~ approximate statement made by NTSB Board Member during a meeting sometime last year

  9. Keep in mind…PTC was mandated by the government….the whizmical minds of those who understands the operations of railroads the least. Republicans are in control right now, and they have a big disdain for unions.

  10. I doubt few of us currently are in favor of one person crews on the extremely long freights but I suspect the majority agree that shorter freights in distance and time could be handled (as in Europe) with just an engineer. I also agree with those that think the 2 person crews should have both as qualified engineers unless its a switching local where only a conductor is needed as the second person. However, what the long term future holds depends upon if driverless trucks actually start occurring. I still can’t understand how that would work, especially during winter in the northern climates and on any road where auto traffic is a factor.

  11. I’m almost always against the unions because when the unions win the general public almost always loses. But on this issue I think I agree with the unions. If the railroads are going to run trains that are up to 2 miles long then there should be two people in the cab. Maybe on shortlines that don’t run long trains and are not far from help and don’t travel hundreds of miles it could work but not on Class 1s that are running huge trains far from end points. This will destroy Amtrak either way. If they have to have two crew members labor costs will go out of sight and if they don’t then longer freight train delays will throw schedules out of whack big time. Safety could go either way. I’m not convinced of the union argument there but overall two people in the cab makes more sense.

  12. The greed of the railroad executives and their Wall Street masters knows no boundaries.

    Bad for the workers, bad for customer and most importantly bad for public safety.

  13. Right now this might be greed. But when driverless trucks start taking away all of the traffic, railroads will have no choice but to go crewless or die.

    Perhaps the best option for the unions, and maybe the railroads too, is to push for legislation that requires crews on trains and also requires a driver on every truck, even if the truck is automated. The railroaders and truckers get to keep their jobs and the railroads don’t have to deal with driverless trucks. Perhaps the Teamsters, and maybe the railroads too, could help get this passed.

    The railroads other option is to go crewless, but that by itself won’t be enough to compete with driverless truck. If a container train has to 200 containers and 2 crew members, railroads enjoy a 100 to 1 labor advantage over trucking, Going crewless prevents trucking from having a crew number advantage but doesn’t restore the advantage railroads currently enjoy. In order to survive some additional cost cutting will be necessary.

    For most of the history of railroading, trains have been getting longer primarily to spread the cost of the crew over more loads. Without a crew, the incentive for long trains goes away. In fact the railroads would be able to save a tremendous amount of money and offer much better service by taking ALL loads directly from origin to destination, even if the “unit” train is only a few cars. Such trains could be handled by very small locomotives. Train handling would be much improved, and in-train forces would be far lower, so that freight cars could be built much lighter than they are today, saving a lot of fuel. Short trains would handle better so all trains could run at the same speed on a given line. If a line handled premium intermodal traffic all trains might run 60-70 MPH. Amtrak could just get in line and achieve a faster average speed and better reliability than they currently have, just because they no longer need to pass the freight trains. They could still sprint to 79 after a station stop until they catch up to the next freight. Also, Amtrak would not be nearly so disruptive to freight operations.

    Such an operation would favor double track or directional running, but trains could be fleeted on bi-directional lines with sidings, such that multiple trains following each other could go into the same siding, one behind another, to meet an apposing fleet.

    If we want to stop trains from going crewless, we need to do it with trucks too, or there will be no more railroads.

  14. This will be splitting hairs but give each other what you want.. Allow 1 man on: non-key unit trains, coal, grain, stone, short haul intermodal, and IM trains that require no switching. 2 Man crew on: manifest, key trains, and IM trains that have switching enroute..

  15. GERALD – True. Roving conductors would be on call. With improved communications and roads everywhere and improved highway vehicles, this isn’t 1869 any more. Also, technology to monitor the alertness of the engine driver – even my Subaru has that, or purports to.

    Yada yada yada. Have all of the above plus a second crew on board.

  16. John Sutherland and Ronald Hull,

    From everything I’ve been reading the headend person would not be the one to walk the train and find the problem, they would remain with the locomotive and the on ground in vehicle roving conductor(as it’s been called) would have to drive to the disabled train and walk it, all the while still performing his job in control of several other trains at the same time.

  17. Perhaps the railroaders can comment on one aspect that occurs to me. When the single man leaves the locomotive to walk the train to determine the problem, will he/she have to apply handbrakes as he goes, especially if stopped on a steep grade?

  18. Speaking from experience, when a train goes into emergency at speed, once safely stopped someone has to walk the train to determine the cause – a plethora of possibilities. On an extremely long train the walk alone, both ways can cause a huge delay. Then the cause must be attended to while the head end is unmanned. Again, mind boggling possibilities are at play here – remote location; bad weather; medical emergency. Not to discredit the ability of todays railroaders, one man on long road train is a disaster waiting to happen at so many levels.

  19. @Chris Kroll: Exactly why it should be negotiated. It simply becomes a work rule based on common sense, including safety issues.

  20. IMHO this will not affect Amtrak. One man crews are in effect, and have been for years by agreement, for short runs only, typically under four hours; there are still two in the cab on the LD’s, And don’t forget, there is at least one conductor aboard to call back signals, confirm slow orders, walk the train if stopped for any external reason, etc.

  21. I do not claim to know intricacies of labor negotiations. For safety I agree with the concept of 2 person crews on very long trains. I suppose the question is two man crews on locals/switching moves, with say 20 cars, where the competition is a truck.

  22. Make that three right wingers that agree. I feel bad for Union rank and file because their leaders have abandoned them to become bag men for the Democrats.

  23. ROBERT and I are the two right wingers on this comment site yet we both agree with the unions on two-person crews on long-haul freights.

    On the three-mile long freights I see on CP Rail in my home area, I’m not sure if two crew is enough. Five or sixlocomotives (head, mid and tail) put yourself in the position of an engineer at the head. He or she has enough to do driving the train without worrying about all that machinery, all those couplers, etc.

    As I posted a day or two back, driving a freight cross country is highly inducive to fatigue and inattention.

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