Since November 2019, SMART members in the Railroad, Mechanical and Engineering Department on Class 1 freight railroads have been engaged in intense negotiations with the National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC), a coalition of employers representing the railroads. Throughout that entire time, the NCCC has continued its assault on labor by seeking agreements which are both unfair to workers and bad for the industry.
The NCCC’s wage proposals would result in an actual reduction in employee earnings in “real wages” (adjusted for inflation). The carriers have proposed such measures as increases to the amount of work that is contracted out and changes to the 40-hour work week, all while demanding that workers pay more for H&W coverage. Despite posting record profits during the pandemic, employers refuse to admit that it is the workers who have risked their lives to keep trains running. And after the experience of the pandemic, the carriers still refuse to agree to paid sick leave. Apparently, management doesn’t see the link between their higher earnings and the harder work performed by our members.
One thing is clear: Our members are prepared to seek the protections, wages and respect they deserve.
Unlike many at SMART, those working on the railroad negotiate with employers (the carriers) under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), a law enacted in 1926 to settle labor disputes using arbitration and mediation instead of the more familiar collective bargaining model under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Because of the particular structure of bargaining under the RLA, parties often end up negotiating through the National Mediation Board (NMB), an independent federal agency that helps resolve contract issues. Repeated failures to reach an agreement can even result in negotiations being pushed to an emergency board established by the president of the United States.
After 18 months of unsuccessful bargaining, SMART’s coalition requested mediation from the NMB in June 2021. After several sessions of both mediation and “super mediation” – in which no productive dialogue occurred and carriers only offered deals that would substantially diminish any increase in compensation while simultaneously refusing the unions’ proposals – the NMB finally released the parties on June 17, starting a 30-day cooling off period.
On July 15, in order to avert a shutdown of the rail industry, President Biden established a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), an entity that is tasked with investigating rail disputes and issuing non-binding recommendations. Under the RLA, if a PEB concludes and the parties do not accept its recommendations within 30 days, the parties may then exercise “non-violent self-help” (strike or lockout). Ultimately, however, Congress has the final authority to impose a resolution, and it has done so in the past in order to avoid such an outcome.
While this process is complicated, we are hopeful that it will provide the framework for an agreement that is beneficial to workers. One thing is clear: Our members are prepared to seek the protections, wages and respect they deserve.