Rail Workers Win Key Concessions in Deal to Prevent Strike

Rail Workers Win Key Concessions in Deal to Prevent Strike
A file photo of Union Pacific trains (Shutterstock)

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Railroad workers secured a deal Thursday that will deliver 24% raises and $5,000 bonuses over five years and it will also address some of their concerns about strict attendance rules and time off.

The deal that's retroactive to 2020 will give rail workers the biggest raises they've seen in more than four decades. But the concessions related to working conditions may prove to be more important to them. The nation's biggest railroads, including Norfolk Southern, CSX, BNSF, Union Pacific and Kansas City Southern all negotiated jointly with 12 unions.

Railroad workers will now be able to take unpaid days off for doctor's appointments without being penalized under railroad attendance rules. Previously, workers would lose points under the attendance systems that BNSF and Union Pacific had adopted and be disciplined.

The last three unions that remained at the bargaining table -- the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division; and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen. -- together represent about 60,000 of the 115,000 railroad workers at the 12 unions involved in the talks.

Like with the other unions that agreed to a deal with the railroads, the financial terms closely follow the recommendations the Presidential Emergency Board that President Joe Biden created last month.

The other nine unions that had reached agreements all had a provision in their deals that will allow them to receive additional benefits equal to what the remaining unions earned through negotiations. So they will likely be able to also benefit from the concessions the unions representing engineers and conductors secured.

The unions that represent the conductors and engineers who drive the trains had pressed hard for changes in the attendance rules because they said the policies made it hard to take any time off. The unions said this deal sets a precedent that they will be able to negotiate over those kind of rules in the future. But workers will still have to vote whether those changes are enough to approve the deal.

Victor Chen, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies labor, said addressing concerns about working conditions have increasingly become a priority for unions and the workers they represent. The railroad unions pointed to workload and attendance rules after the major railroads cut nearly one-third of their workforce -- some 45,000 jobs -- over the past six years.

The railroad industry has aggressively cut costs everywhere and shifted its operations to rely more on fewer, longer trains, which allowed to to use fewer locomotives and fewer employees. The unions said the remaining workers, particularly engineers and conductors, were on call 24-7 because of jobs cuts and could hardly take any time off under strict attendance rules.

"At a certain point, good wages just aren't enough to make up for the toll these sorts of working conditions impose on workers," Chen said. "The companies need to treat workers like human beings, rather than just inputs in a business process."

Unions had an advantage at the bargaining table because of the tight labor market and ongoing service problems on the railroads, Chen said. Shippers have complained loudly this year about delays and poor service as railroads struggled to quickly hire enough workers to handle a surge in demand as the economy emerged from the pandemic. Worker shortages have prompted a number of other unions to strike over the past two years, and union organizing efforts are up with prominent campaigns to establish unions at Starbucks, Amazon and other companies.

But Chen said the railroad unions had additional leverage because of the persistent supply-chain problems.

In one of the biggest strikes last year over 10,000 Deere workers secured 10% raises and improved benefits but those gains came after the workers remained on strike for a month and rejected two offers from the company.

But it likely won't be clear for several weeks whether railroad workers will support these deals.

Already, one labor union voted Wednesday to reject a deal based closely on the Presidential Emergency Board's recommendations, but the members of that International Association of Machinists union agreed to delay any strike action until Sept. 29 to allow for additional negotiations. Two other rail unions voted to approve deals Wednesday.

Rutgers University professor Todd Vachon, who teaches classes about labor relations, said that since the pandemic, working conditions have increasingly been a key part of labor disputes -- sometimes rivaling wages and benefits. Railroad workers were particularly attuned to work-life balance and the ability to take time off for health reasons.

That has led to a "real resurgence in the labor movement that goes beyond merely reacting to inflation," Vachon said.

The Presidential Emergency Board recommended significant raises, but told the unions to address their concerns about working conditions through arbitration that can drag on for years or additional negotiations at each railroad.

The unions pressed for better working conditions immediately.


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