• How will BMWED and SMART-MD’s request for a release from mediation impact the ongoing round of national negotiations?

BMWED and SMART-MD currently are engaged in mediation under the auspices of the National Mediation Board (NMB). Under the federal Railway Labor Act (RLA), which governs labor relations and collective bargaining in the rail industry, mediation continues until such time as the parties reach agreement or all reasonable efforts to mediate an agreement have been exhausted. The carriers maintain this standard has not been met and that the unions’ request is premature. As such, the carriers will ask the NMB to continue mediation.

  • Why do the carriers maintain the unions’ request is premature?

Under the RLA, the parties in a dispute over proposed changes in collective bargaining agreements are required to exert “every reasonable effort” to settle the dispute at each stage prescribed by the Act, including the period of direct conferences and during NMB mediation. That has not happened.

While the unions emphasize that bargaining has been ongoing since the beginning of 2020, the parties have not met in-person since the start of the pandemic.  For almost six months in 2020, the unions refused to even meet by videoconferences. Since mediation began in June 2021, BMWED and SMART-MD have made one proposal and simply rejected every carrier proposal. They have also failed to respond meaningfully to the carriers’ counterproposals and other suggestions for moving the process forward. As such, the parties have not yet come close to exhausting “every reasonable effort” to reach agreement as is required by law.

  • What are the issues in dispute?

As is typical, the major issues in the bargaining round involve wages, health benefits and work rules. The railroads propose to reach agreements on a fair compensation and benefit package for rail workers who already rank among the most highly compensated employees in the country. The railroads also are seeking to update certain outdated work rules that, in some cases, have not been revised in decades.

To learn more about the railroads’ proposals in the bargaining round, click here.

In addition, BMWED and SMART-MD represent only about 20 percent of the industry’s 115,000 unionized employees. A coalition of unions that represent the other 80 percent recently requested mediation, and those mediated discussions will cover many of the same issues, particularly health care, that are also involved in the BMWED and SMART-MD discussions.

  • Is it true that the larger coalition also is requesting a release?

The larger coalition, which is known as the Coordinated Bargaining Coalition (CBC) and represents approximately 80% of all railroad employees participating in national bargaining, recently stated that it expects to request a release. However, given that the parties’ first joint mediation meeting will not occur until March 31st, it is difficult to see how the CBC could credibly make such a request to the NMB. The carriers maintain that mediation can help the parties reach an agreement and intend to approach the process in good faith. We expect CBC will do the same.

  • If the NMB releases the parties from mediation, could there be a rail service disruption?

The carriers do not believe the NMB should release the parties 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 in order 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.

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