Rail strike on hold as Presidential Emergency Board convenes

A Presidential Emergency Board appointed last week by President Obama to avoid a nationwide rail strike convened Thursday and began hearing testimony from the National Carriers Conference Committee, which represents the nation’s major rail carriers. Testimony from 11 unions that represent rail workers will follow.

The carriers are proposing significant cuts to workers’ health care coverage and wage increases that the unions say do not reflect the value created by rail workers.

Before the President authorized the emergency board, members of at least two of unions had authorized strikes. One of those unions was the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees of the Teamsters (BMWED). “The BMWED, along with our brothers in the ten other rail labor unions have made it clear that we will not stand and allow the rail carriers to gut our health care and deny our members a decent standard of living while they reap record profits,” said Freddie Simpson, BMWED president. “A voluntary agreement would have preferable, but we look forward to making our case to the Board.”

The other union authorizing a strike was the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), also affiliated with the Teamsters.  BLET members voted 97 percent in favor of a strike.

The health care benefit is especially important to rail workers because their work is dangerous and has many health risks. Recently the Federal Railway Administration issued a safety advisory after three rail workers were killed on the job in three separate incidents this summer. Those working on the rails also are exposed to dangerous chemicals that can have long-term health consequences.

But the carriers want workers to accept health care cuts that unions estimate will total $500 million over the next five years, the bulk of which would be in form of increased costs for the most vulnerable rail workers. “Almost all (health care) savings to the railroads will come from increased costs to employees who need to access health care for themselves or their sick family members,” reads a statement from the Rail Labor Bargaining Coalition(RLBC), which represents six of unions in negotiations. “The prosperity of our industry and fairness to our most vulnerable members require rejection of this thoroughly bad idea.”

Last summer the NCCC and the United Transportation Union agreed to a contract that included the health care cuts that the carriers are demanding. Shortly after reaching the agreement, the NCCC claimed that its contract with UTU would set the industry pattern for other union contracts it was negotiating.

At the time, the  RLBC and five other unions that are part of an informal negotiating coalition were in talks being mediated by the National Mediation Board. The unions rejected NCCC’s claim and opted out of mediation.  The unions also rejected arbitration as is their right under the Railway Labor Act.

Once arbitration was rejected, the President either had to create the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) or face the possibility of a nationwide rail strike. The emergency board has 30 days from the day it is created to hear testimony from both sides and issue non-binding recommendations.

After the emergency board makes its recommendations, the two sides must either accept the recommendations or engage in further negotiations for 30 days. If no deal is reached, then either side after waiting another 30 days may take what is referred to in the Railway Labor Act as self-help, which among other things could mean a strike or a lockout.

One of the unions that belongs to the informal bargaining coalition, the IAM, is confident that the emergency board will make recommendations that will lead to a settlement. The last time an emergency board was created in 2007, it “supported the reasonable positions (the unions) presented,” said IAM Transportation General Vice President Robert Roach, Jr.

“We have been meeting with our attorneys, economists and benefits specialists in preparation for a PEB hearing,” said IAM Railroad Coordinator and District 19 President Joe Duncan.  “The PEB’s recommendations for settlement will lead to
serious negotiations, which is something we have not received from the carriers to this point.”

The BMWED describes the NCCC’s position that it has taken during negotiations as “greedy and disrespectful to their employees.”

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