News & Reviews News Wire CEOs believe conditions are better as next round of labor negotiations approach

CEOs believe conditions are better as next round of labor negotiations approach

By David Lassen | January 12, 2024

| Last updated on January 25, 2024

At MARS, officials talk of improving relationships with workers, citing sick-time, scheduling deals

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Man in black coat and white shirt gesturing while speaking
CSX CEO Joe Hinrichs makes a point during his appearance at the Midwest Association of Rail Shippers Winter Meeting on Jan. 10, 2024. David Lassen

LOMBARD, Ill. — A lot has happened since Class I railroads averted a strike in 2022. CEOs and other officials at the Midwest Association of Rail Shippers Winter Meeting were happy to point to progress in labor relations.

Which is good, because — believe it or not — the whole national contract process is about to start all over again.

The problem with taking three years to navigate the convoluted, Byzantine negotiating process set by the Railway Labor Act is that the parties involved barely have time to catch their breath before resuming. The first official steps in the process begin in November; unofficial talks are already underway, said CSX CEO Joe Hinrichs.

“We’re having good discussions within the industry and with our union partners about how do we do it, how do we learn from what happened?” Hinrichs said. “It wasn’t good for our employees, it wasn’t good for our customers, it wasn’t good for our union partners, it wasn’t good for the companies. So I think, I hope, that we can learn from that.”

Association of American Railroads CEO Ian Jefferies said he does not believe a drawn-out negotiation “is in anyone’s interest this time around. Yes, these things take time. They’re complex — we have 12 unions, we have several railroads — but I think it’s in everyone’s interest to try to knock this out in a more compressed time frame to the extent possible.”

Man with beard
Association of American Railroads CEO Ian Jefferies speaks at the Midwest Association of Rail Shippers Winter Meeting on Jan. 10, 2024. David Lassen

Jefferies believes progress made since the 2022 strike was averted when President Biden approved Congress-imposed terms based on the recommendations of a Presidential Emergency Board [see “Biden signs bill …,” Trains News Wire, Dec. 2, 2022], providing a basis for positive negotiations. As detailed by the National Carriers’ Conference Committee — the Class I railroads that are part of the national contract negotiations — those railroads have reached more than 48 agreements providing paid sick days to employees who did not already have them, covering more than 90% of union-represented employees at those railroads. More than 80% of the engineers and conductors at those railroads are now covered by agreements with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen or SMART-TD regarding more predictable scheduling.

“We came out of the last round having done some things to improve quality of life,” said Union Pacific President Beth Whited. “I believe this next round will have even more discussions with our unions about wages, of course, and healthcare, but I’m sure that there will be new and emerging items that they would like to talk about.”

Whited does think the quality-of-life issues addressed by the scheduling agreement with the BLET, currently rolling out across the UP system, is a positive, and said UP is continuing negotiations with SMART-TD to do the same for conductors.

Woman speaking at podium
Union Pacific President Beth Whited at MARS. David Lassen

“We believe that that scheduling is really important for the quality of life of the craft, and we’re anxious to get something in place that helps all of those employees feel like they have the ability to get rest when they need rest and have some certainty in their schedule,” Whited said. “So we’re excited to get that done. I would guess that’ll be evolving over the year 2024.”

CSX’s Hinrichs came to his current job with a reputation for having built good labor relations while president of Ford Motor Co. He preached the importance of improving the relationship with the rank and file since arriving in Jacksonville, and remained adamant about that theme in his Wednesday appearance in Lombard.

“We need to remember the value created in this industry is created by the movement of goods,” he said. “… When you start with that premise and that understanding, you appreciate the value of the workforce we have. And why would you want to have an acrimonious relationship? Why would you not want them to feel good about what they do every day? Why would you not want ’em to feel part of the team? … Every employee should feel valued, appreciated, respected, included, and listened to.”

Hinrichs was asked about his impromptu visits to sites around the railroad, and said those visits had motivated him to deal with the sick-leave issue. “Employees were telling me stories about how ‘my wife had a cancer treatment and I called in ahead of this to miss work and I got disciplined for it.’ …

“An employee was telling me what it’s like to be disciplined for being sick. …. He said, ‘I come to work every day. I’m proud to be CSX railroader. I’m proud what I do, but people get sick. All of our time off has to be pre-approved, but that’s not possible with sickness. You can’t say I’m sick next Thursday’. And so he said, ‘So here’s what happens in our system. I got sick, I can’t work. I don’t want to infect other people. I go to the doctor, the doctor gives me a note, gives me prescription, says, stay home for two days. … And for that experience, you give me five discipline points that never expire, never. So for the next 20 to 30 years, that irritates me and never goes away.’” The system has since been changed — there’s no discipline if an employee sees a doctor, five points if they don’t — and points expire every 12 months.

“So we took care of the problem, and people feel good about that,” Hinrichs said. “… When you’re a CEO and you have a nice office looking out over a nice river in Jacksonville, you don’t get those stories. You don’t learn those things.”

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Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw at MARS. David Lassen

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, meanwhile, struck a theme of keeping promises in his Wednesday lunchtime talk with Oliver Wyman partner Adriene Bailey, and said the railroad had done that with its workforce.

“All 20,000 Norfolk Southern employees are a component of advancing our strategy, and I’m really proud of the fact that we’re the first railroad to offer paid sick leave to every single one of our employees,” Shaw said. He also said the railroad was keeping those employees involved in a process of identifying safety issues through the use of an outside consultant, Atkins Nuclear Secured [see “Safety consultant identifies ways Norfolk Southern can improve,” News Wire, Sept. 14, 2023].

“I reached out to our labor leaders, the heads of all of our 12 labor unions, and I said, I want you to be part of this process,” he said. “And so the middle of last year, I penned a letter to all 20,000 Norfolk Southern employees that was cosigned by each one of our labor unions. … And so our craft colleagues have involved with this process from day one.” And when the report came out, Shaw said, the company not only publicized it on social media, but mailed a summary to every employee. “I said this is important,” Shaw said. “We are going to act on it. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

One thought on “CEOs believe conditions are better as next round of labor negotiations approach

  1. What these CEOs do not state – as do neither the top rail union officials – is the fact that, had the rank & file not revolted, defying both their union leadership and the Class One carriers, we never would have won those subsequent “on-property” agreements concerning paid sick leave. Remember? The NCCC would not agree to a single day of paid sick leave, and the union leadership largely capitulated. When the operating crafts’ union officials mounted a timid resistance, that was quickly quelled by the Biden-Walsh “historic agreement” at the 11th hour, offering just three days, which were not even sick days by any stretch of the imagination, to be taken only Tuesday – Thursday with 30 days advance notice. Ha! What a joke. Only because working railroaders – aided and abetted by Railroad Workers United (RWU) – continued to fight back, vote no on the proposed contract, and threaten to strike, were we able to win the concessions we did from the carriers property-by-property the following year. Ron Kaminkow, Organizer, RWU

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