By DON McINTOSH and COLIN STAUB
It’s the end of the line for railway union negotiations. In a historic development, all 12 freight rail labor unions, representing 115,000 workers, have been bargaining together with more than 30 major freight rail companies allied in the National Railway Labor Conference. The negotiations have been contentious and have dragged on for over two years.
In June, after a year-long effort at mediation failed to bring agreement, a mandatory 30-day cooling-off period began. On July 15, President Biden signed an executive order creating a three-member “Presidential Emergency Board.” Under the Railway Labor Act of 1926, that delayed a strike or lockout for a further 60 days, during which board appointees make recommendations on how the parties should move forward.
The emergency board released its 124-page recommended settlement Aug. 16: a five-year agreement with raises totaling 24%. Railroad companies were previously offering wage increases totaling 17% over five years. Unions were proposing increases of 31.2% over five years. The latest federal numbers, released July 13, show annual inflation is at 9.1%.
Railroad companies have said they support the deal, so the decision is now in the hands of union members — or possibly Congress, which could intervene to force a deal. But many rail workers are opposed to the recommendations, which they view as lopsided in favor of railroad companies.
Rail workers haven’t had a raise since 2019. The emergency board recommends retroactive raises of 3% for 2020 and 3.5% for 2021, followed by annual increases of 4% to 7% through 2024—plus $1,000 bonuses for each year of the five years.
But the board’s proposed settlement also increases worker contributions to monthly health insurance premiums. And it does little to address what’s become one of the biggest concerns for rail workers—overwork and a lack of time off. Instituting a practice known as precision scheduled railroading (PSR), the major freight railroads have eliminated nearly a third of their employees—about 45,000 jobs—over the last six years. They’ve also increased the length of trains, so much that trains of over 200 cars and two miles long are no longer uncommon. That means more work, with fewer people, and faster. Rail workers are finding it hard to take days off, and feel like they’re on call 24-7.
If union members reject the Presidential Emergency Board recommendations, they could legally strike as of Sept. 15, 30 days after the board issued them.
Rail strikes are rare, in part because the Railway Labor Act places severe restrictions on rail workers’ right to strike. The last rail strike was in 1991 by Machinists union members at CSX. Congress passed legislation to end it less than 24 hours after it began, the 11th time since 1963 that Congress had intervened in a rail strike.