Rail unions try to stop tentative agreement from becoming industry pattern

United Transportation Union (UTU) members this week will begin hearing the details of a new five-year contract that the union negotiated with the nation’s railroad companies represented by the National Carriers Conference Committee. Local meetings, which began on July 17 and will run through August 2, will  take place all across the country. Voting on the contract will begin when all of the meetings have concluded.

UTU’s International President Mike Futhey says that the new contract will mean the biggest wage increase for UTU members in the 41-year history of the union.

But other railway unions say that UTU conceded too much by allowing the railroads to shift millions of dollars in health care costs to workers at a time when railroads are making enormous profits and that the tentative wage increase is less than one negotiated in 2005 when railroad profits weren’t as high as they are now.

These unions have taken steps to prevent UTU’s tentative agreement from becoming the pattern for other contract negotiations. One of the unions, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the Teamsters (BMWED), is urging UTU members to reject the contract.

UTU and the National Carriers Conference Committee (NCCC), which represents the nation’s largest railway freight carriers, concluded negotiations on this contract back in June. UTU’s general chairpersons have unanimously recommended that members accept the tentative agreement and are holding local meetings to explain the terms to members.

According to UTU’s website, the tentative agreement includes a record wage increase and maintenance of the $200 a month cap on worker health care costs. “In the 41-year history of the UTU, this wage increase is the highest in excess of the current and projected consumer price index,” said UTU International President Mike Futhey. “A UTU member earning $80,000 in 2007 will be earning about $112,000 on the same job by 2015.”

But six unions belonging to the Rail Labor Bargaining Coalition (RLBC) say tentative agreement shifts $144 million in health care costs to workers over the five-year period of the contract and that the wage increase of 14 percent over the five-year contract period (January 1, 2010 to December 31, 2014) wage increase amounts to only 14 percent, less than the 17 percent negotiated in 2005.

The smaller wage increase and the health care concession comes at a time when rail profits are soaring. During the five-year period preceding the last contract, according to RLBC, railroads profits were $15.9 billion in constant 2009 dollars. During the five-period preceding UTU’s tentative agreement, railroad profits were $32.7 billion in constant 2009 dollars.

The RLBC, which consists of the BMWED, the Locomotive Engineers (also affiliated with the Teamsters), Boilermakers, Sheet Metal Workers, Signalmen, Firemen and Oilers (affiliated with SEIU), and Machinists, has been negotiating with the NCCC on a new contract since 2010, and the talks are currently in mediation overseen by the National Mediation Board.

UTU’s tentative agreement has angered the RLBC because it believes that the tentative agreement if ratified will then be adopted as the pattern, which will define the limits of the contract it eventually negotiates with the NCCC.

In hopes of heading off this possibility, the RLBC has requested that the National Mediation Board end mediation and allow the contract negotiations to enter the next stage of dispute resolution under the Railway Labor Act.

Last week BMWED took another step to prevent the tentative agreement from becoming the industry pattern. It sent flyers to locals explaining its objections to the tentative agreement and urged locals to distribute the flyers to UTU members and other railway union members. The flyer concludes in these words: “The railroads are trying to claim this is a pattern and force this rotten deal on all of labor. The UTU rank and file should say no.”

According to a BMWED memo, the tentative agreement if accepted will increase workers out-of-pocket health care costs for those who need medical care.  For example workers will now for the first time pay a 5 percent co-insurance fee with an annual maximum of $1,000 for individuals and $2,000 for families. Workers will also to pay a $200 deductible for individuals and $400 for families and $75 for emergency room visits. The urgent care visit co-pay will be reduced to $20.

BMWED says that the bulk of the new health care costs will fall on workers who are sick or whose family members are sick. “’An injury to one is an injury to all’ has been a principle of trade unionists for over a century” said the BMWED memo. “The UTU tentative (contract) turns that old principle into ‘an injury to you, isn’t an injury to me’.”

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