Cooling-off period extensions avert rail strike

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the Teamsters (BMWED) announced on December 2 that it reached an agreement with the National Carriers Conference Committee (NCCC) to extend a 30-day cooling-off period implemented in November and set to expire on December 6. As a result, a nationwide rail strike that could have begun on December 6 will not take place.

Two other railroad unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the American Train Dispatchers Association on December 1 announced that they reached tentative agreements on contracts with the NCCC, which represents more than 30 rail freight carriers in the US. Nine other unions reached tentative agreements in mid-November shortly after a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) appointed by President Obama recommended terms to settle a two-year contract dispute between 12 rail unions and US rail freight carriers.

BMWED President Freddie Simpson said that its agreement with NCCC would extend the cooling-off period, required by the Railway Labor Act after a PEB announces its recommendations, until February 10, giving the union more time to negotiate a settlement that includes an increase in away-from-home expenses for members who travel on railway business.

“The BMWED did not take this action because it was afraid to strike,” Simpson said. “We took this action because we believe it gives our members the best opportunity to resolve this issue quickly and fairly and avoid an interruption to commerce and avoid a wage loss to our members and other union members who would honor our picket lines.”

Simpson also said that an increase in away-from-home expenses was essential for a fair settlement of the contract dispute because there has been no away-from-home expense adjustment for 15 years. Local BMWED bargaining committees will reach out to various railroads no later than January 9 to begin bargaining directly with them on this issue. If the issue cannot be resolved by the end of the cooling-off period, the union will take the next appropriate action.  BMWED represents 35,000 workers who build, maintain, and repair rail tracks, buildings, bridges, and equipment,

Meanwhile, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the American Train Dispatchers Association said that they had resolved issues concerning changes to their health care benefit and would send the tentative agreement to members for a ratification vote.

Dennis Pierce, president of BLET, said that his union, the dispatchers’ union, and the NCCC had agreed to extend the cooling-off period so that members could vote on ratification.

Pierce said that the tentative agreement includes the PEB health care benefit recommendations that closely mirror concessions  that the NCCC wanted and that the United Transportation Union agreed to in June. Back then, BMWED estimated that the health care concessions sought by the NCCC will shift $77 a month worth of health costs from the carriers to rail workers. Moreover, the concessions shift even greater costs onto workers who either have health problems themselves or who have family members with health problems.

Pierce said that he was reluctant to accept this change because some of his members had agreed to local wage settlements based on the assumption that their health care costs would not increase.

However, he decided not to issue a strike order and, instead, to allow members to vote on the tentative agreement because he thought that if a strike occurred, Congress would impose a settlement that would be worse than the tentative agreement. House Republicans had already introduced a resolution to impose a settlement and Senate Democrats and Republicans had initiated similar action.

Under the Railway Labor Act, Congress has the authority with president’s concurrence to halt strikes in transportation labor disputes. In April 1991, the last time rail workers struck, Congress, which at that time was controlled by Democrats, halted the strike after less than a day and authorized President George H.W. Bush to appoint a three-member panel to impose a settlement, which the panel did in June. Unions complained that the imposed settlement favored the carriers.

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