WASHINGTON — Preventing a national rail strike that could have begun Monday, July 18, President Joe Biden has established a Presidential Emergency Board to investigate the ongoing dispute between railroads and workers.
Biden will name the members of the three-person board, whose members can not have any financial or other interest in either a rail labor organization or a railroad. The board will have 30 days from its establishment, effective Monday, to deliver a report recommending a resolution to the dispute. After that, the Railway Labor Act specifies there can be no work stoppage for another 30 days, except by agreement of both sides.
“The President’s goal is to make sure America’s freight rail system continues to run without disruption, delivering the items that our families, communities, farms and businesses rely on,” according to a statement from the White House. The executive order creating the board is available here.
The group representing railroads in the negotiations, the National Carriers Conference Committee, said it welcomed establishment of the presidential board and that it anticipates the board will hold hearings before issuing its recommendations. “Although PEB recommendations are not binding, they historically have assisted the parties in reaching voluntary agreements” during the 30-day period after recommendations are issued.
“We look forward to demonstrating to the PEB how a recommendation based on our proposals would appropriately reward rail employees’ hard work and skills while best positioning the industry to grow and compete for traffic in the nation’s highly competitive freight marketplace,” the group said in a statement.
For its part, the Coordinated Bargaining Coalition, which represents a dozen unions involved in the negotiation, issued a statement saying it is “now working together in reparation of a unified case representing the best interests of all rail employees” to present to the Presidential Emergency Board. That case, the coalition said, “will clearly show that the unions’ proposals are supported by current economic data and are more than warranted when compared to our memberships’ contribution to the record profits of the rail carriers.”
Robert Guy of the Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers-Transportation Division (SMART-TD), elaborated on the union position in a comment to Trains News Wire.
“We certainly want the PEB and don’t want to shut the country down or affect the American consumer — we just want a fair agreement,” said Guy, the union’s Illinois Legislative Board Transportation Division Director and vice president of the Illinois AFL-CIO.
“I’ve got 28 years in,” Guy said, “and this is the first time I can ever remember that you have career railroaders not recommending these jobs to friends and family. That’s an about-face; railroads like to hire family members because it’s more likely the people coming in know what to expect: you’re going to get paid but spend time away from home. All that’s been eliminated now because you’re forced to be available. The work-life balance is horrible with these worker reductions, attendance policies and [Precision Scheduled Railroading].”
Association of American Railroads CEO Ian Jefferies said in a statement that railroads “remain committed to reach an agreement that provides their employees well-deserved compensation increases that keep them among the best paid in the nation.” Jefferies said railroaders have average annual earnings of $135,000 in total pay and benefits.
Meanwhile, Greg Regan, head of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, which includes rail unions and other transportation labor organizations, pointed to railroad earnings in his comments commending Biden for naming the board.
“The seven Class I railroads have raked in $146 billion in profits since 2015 while cutting 45,000 jobs in the same period,” Regan’s statement said. “Quite simply, the facts are on our side and we look forward to the forthcoming recommendations of the presidentially-appointed arbitrators.”
— Correspondent Bob Johnston contributed to this report.