Updated May 11, 2022
Q: What is the status of national bargaining?
A: The class I freight railroads currently are in national bargaining with two separate union coalitions that collectively represent all 115,000 employees in the bargaining round: (1) the Coordinated Bargaining Coalition (CBC), which represents approximately 80 percent of the employees; and (2) the BMWED/SMART-MD Coalition, which represents the remaining 20 percent.
The railroads entered mediation with the BMWED/SMART-MD Coalition in June 2021. The railroads entered mediation with the CBC in late January 2022 and, following an initial organizational meeting in March 2022, conducted their first mediation sessions in April via videoconference. Mediation remains underway with all groups.
Q: What is mediation?
A: Under the federal Railway Labor Act (RLA), which governs labor relations and the collective bargaining process in the freight rail industry, either party is permitted to file an application for mediation with the National Mediation Board (NMB). Once an application is filed, the NMB will docket the case and assign one or more mediators to facilitate negotiations with the goal of helping the parties reach an agreement. Mediation is a normal part of the collective bargaining process that has been used in many recent national negotiations to facilitate final agreements.
There is no time limit for the mediation process. It often takes many months, or even years, to conclude mediation under the RLA depending on the complexity of the negotiations and other factors. Mediation ends only when the parties reach an agreement or the NMB concludes that all reasonable efforts to reach such an agreement through mediation have failed.
Q: Why haven’t the parties reached an agreement yet?
A: Rail employees work hard and deserve compensation increases, and the railroads want to reach new agreements that provide employees with compensation increases in the near-term. However, this will require mutual agreement on an overall set of terms for a new national agreement. At present, the parties remain far apart in their negotiating positions and so more work needs to be done to bring the bargaining round to a conclusion.
The pandemic is one reason the bargaining process has not progressed as far as desired or expected in this round to this point. National negotiations have historically involved in-person meetings with many representatives from the labor unions as well as railroad representatives. In this bargaining round, a single in-person meeting occurred with only one coalition before the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. Thereafter, while the railroads and both coalitions exchanged presentations virtually, there was not another in-person national bargaining session – and only with the CBC – conducted until August 2021. Since then, only two more in-person national bargaining sessions have occurred, both with the CBC. There have been no in-person negotiations with the BMWED/SMART-MD coalition the entire bargaining round.
The mediation process with both coalitions has been conducted virtually to date but is expected to resume with in-person meetings this summer. The railroads are hopeful that, with the assistance of the federal mediators, the parties will be able to find solutions to the issues that have been raised by both sides. As these solutions are identified and negotiated, the gap between the parties’ positions should narrow and provide the basis for new labor agreements.
Q: What are the major issues in the bargaining round?
A: As is typical, the major issues in the bargaining round involve wages, health benefits and certain work rules. The railroads have proposed to reach an overall fair compensation and benefit package for rail workers, the details of which in all areas need to be fully negotiated and agreed upon. Both sides have made proposals in all these areas – all told there are dozens of items relating to compensation, health care and work rules – that remain open with both coalitions and the subject of direct national negotiations. Additional information about the railroads’ proposals can be found at www.raillaborfacts.org.
Separately, several railroads – also represented by the NCCC – are pursuing discussions with the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division (SMART-TD) regarding train crew size and redeployment of conductors from the cab of the locomotive to ground-based positions.
Q: How is the crew size bargaining with SMART-TD connected to the national negotiations?
A: The carriers have proposed to redeploy conductors from the cab of the locomotive to ground-based positions in PTC-enabled territory. This is an important issue for both the railroads and the employees. For the railroads, redeploying conductors will allow the carriers to continue to operate safely but more efficiently while maintaining customer service levels. On the employee front, ground-based conductor positions are expected to be regular assignments with predictable schedules. This type of scheduling will significantly enhance employee quality of life by eliminating the need for many conductors in through-freight service to overnight away from home.
The carriers invited SMART-TD to negotiate directly and nationally over the crew size issue at the outset of the bargaining round but this invitation was rejected. As a result, the active bargaining to date over crew size (which was delayed almost two years until SMART-TD legal and procedural objections could be resolved) is taking place on a carrier-level basis. This means that each railroad involved in those discussions is negotiating directly with SMART-TD. Nevertheless, there are connections to the national bargaining process because related issues – including a recent CBC proposal regarding the carriers’ crew size notices – have been presented at the national table.
Crew size negotiations involving BNSF and Norfolk Southern have now advanced to mediation. Other carriers are continuing or expect to engage in direct negotiations with SMART-TD.
Q: What is the status of the unions’ requests to be released from mediation?
A: The BMWED/SMART-MD Coalition requested a release from mediation in early February 2022. After considering the positions of the parties and reviewing the progress of mediation, the NMB determined in an April 8 letter to keep the BMWED/SMART-MD coalition in mediation. The carriers expect further mediation meetings will be scheduled.
The CBC coalition, after preemptively declaring in early February their intention to seek an immediate release well ahead of the first mediated bargaining session, has now followed through and made the formal requests to the NMB to be released. The NCCC does not agree that the parties have reached an impasse and believes the requests for release are premature.
At the most recent mediation session on May 4, the carriers presented an updated comprehensive proposal. The CBC did not provide any counter-proposal on May 5 and instead continues to maintain the parties are at impasse. The carriers believe that mediation can help the parties reach an agreement and will remain available to meet with the CBC at any time and fully engage in the process and continue negotiating in good faith to reach agreements and conclude the bargaining round.
Q: What is the status of the carriers’ advance payment proposal?
A: The carriers recently offered to provide employees with payments of up to $600 per month as advances against the future lump sum payments and wage increases that are expected in the next national agreement. Most unions have formally declined that offer, but the railroads have urged the unions to reconsider their positions and are keeping the proposal available.
Rail employees work hard and deserve compensation increases that keep them among the best paid employees in the nation. The railroads want to reach new national agreements with the labor organizations that provide those increases, but the issues on the national bargaining table are complex and there is more work to be done before complete agreements can be finalized. The railroads’ advance payment proposal is intended to help mitigate the impact of COVID-related delays in the bargaining process on the employee group while the parties continue to discuss the many important issues that remain open in negotiations.
Even if the parties reach tentative agreements promptly, those agreements generally must be ratified by the union membership before they become effective and payments can be made. It can take several months for the ratification process to be completed and for payments due under the agreements to be calculated and processed. As a result, the railroads believe that regardless of when tentative agreements are reached, the monthly advance payment proposal is the best way to put money in employees’ hands now.
Q: One union recently announced that it is seeking strike authorization from its members. Does this mean there will be a strike?
A: Unions often invoke the strike authorization processes in their constitutions or bylaws. However, this does not mean that a strike will occur. As described in more detail below, the RLA prohibits strikes and work stoppages during mediation and for a period of time thereafter – regardless of whether the union membership has authorized a strike.
Q: If the NMB releases the parties from mediation, could there be a rail service disruption?
The carriers do not believe the NMB should release any party from mediation considering the state of the bargaining process. However, if the NMB believes a release is appropriate, it is first required by law to offer the parties an opportunity to engage in final and binding interest arbitration regarding the issues in dispute. If either party rejects the proffer of arbitration, the parties enter a 30-day cooling off period during which strikes and other forms of work stoppages are prohibited. Thereafter, the President of the United States may elect to appoint a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to investigate and make recommendations regarding settlement of the dispute. If a PEB is appointed, work stoppages continue to be prohibited until 30 days following the issuance of the PEB’s report.
When necessary, Congress has intervened in rail labor disputes to prevent service disruptions. For instance, in the early 1990s, Congress required the railroads and many of the rail labor unions to engage in final and binding interest arbitration of an industry-wide collective bargaining dispute to prevent disruptions to shipping activities.
For decades, the national bargaining process under the RLA has been remarkably successful in facilitating contract settlements without service disruptions. In fact, the last service disruption due to a dispute arising from national bargaining was in the early 1990s. The railroads believe in the collective bargaining process and will continue negotiating in good faith to reach voluntary agreements without any disruptions to service.