Name: HR 1748 Safe Freight act
Employed as: Conductor, for 10-20 years
Posted: 04 November 2019
Collective bargaining between most of the nation’s largest railroads,
represented by the National Carriers Conference Committee (NCCC), and
their 12 craft-specific labor unions commenced Nov. 1 with the two
sides exchanging broadly defined demands in preparation for
face-to-face talks to amend contracts setting wages, benefits and work
rules. Some two-dozen smaller railroads also are participating.
Railroad labor-management relations are governed by the 1926 Railway
Labor Act (RLA), recognized as a manual of peace rather than war—its
provisions intended and proven effective at preventing work stoppages
via strikes or lockouts in favor of voluntarily negotiated settlements.
There has not been a national railroad strike in almost three decades.
As RLA-governed labor agreements never expire, but are periodically
amended, there is no clock ticking toward a date-specific settlement
lest there be a work stoppage. Should negotiations falter, either side
may invite guidance from the National Mediation Board (NMB). Both sides
are barred from taking independent strike or lockout action until
formally released by the NMB, and then only after following statutorily
More specifically, should the NMB declare a bargaining impasse, the
parties must consider accepting binding arbitration. If not, the White
House has opportunity to appoint a Presidential Emergency Board to make
non-binding recommendations—with built-in cooling-off periods—before a
work stoppage can occur, meaning the public will have significant
In fact, on the rare occasions a national railroad work stoppage has
occurred—and none since 1992—Congress typically steps in with a
back-to-work order that establishes, through legislation, contract
amendments. Such an undesired result by both parties exerts persistent
pressure to reach voluntary agreements.
While history records national rail agreements being reached within
months, negotiations also have dragged on for years—but with trains
continuing to run and union-represented employees continuing to work
under contracts that remain in force until amended through voluntary
agreement or by a third party. The previous round of national
negotiations began in November 2014 and continued peacefully through
2018 when the last of the 12 unions reached a voluntary settlement with
As the cross-serving of contract-change demands (Section 6 notices in
RLA parlance) precedes a previously mutually agreed-upon contract
reopening date—Jan. 1, 2020, in this case—direct negotiations are
expected to begin in January.
Among the most contentious issues anticipated this round are minimum
train-crew staffing (crew consist) related to implementation of
train-safety enhancing Positive Train Control (PTC); employee
cost-sharing of escalating healthcare insurance costs; and
liberalization of work rules to allow carriers greater flexibility in
Unlike striking United Auto Workers who had suffered economically
through the General Motors bankruptcy, rail workers have enjoyed salad
days over the past decade, reflecting robust railroad economics.
Since 2005, unionized rail-worker compensation (wages plus the value of
benefits) has increased by 43%, versus 29% for other American workers.
And since 2015, compensation of the highest paid rail workers has
increased by some $33,000 annually, and some $16,000 annually for those
in the lower wage rungs. Rail workers, with average compensation now
exceeding $120,000 annually, place among the top 6% of wage earners
nationwide—above many occupations requiring advanced educational
But as the American economy is slowing owing to a trade war and other
global factors, and rail traffic is showing persistent steep declines
as a result—further negatively impacted by the collapse of coal traffic
as natural gas and renewable energy takes its place—railroad economics
are far less robust. Thus, railroads seek to adjust compensation to
market conditions and comparable industries
The NCCC (part of the National Railway Labor Conference, or NRLC) says
its Section 6 notices are “comprehensive proposals addressing the need
to adapt workplace practices to modern technologies, aggressively move
healthcare plan design and features toward mainstream standards and
achieve better health outcomes, and reach an overall fair and
competitive labor cost structure to position the railroads for
long-term success in the face of the many industry challenges.”
The NCCC is being led this round by veteran labor negotiator Brendan
Branon, recruited late in 2018 to head the NRLC from Delta Airlines
(airline labor-management relations also are governed by the RLA).
Class I railroads within the NCCC coalition include:
CN U.S. operations (Grand Trunk Western, Illinois Central, Bessemer &
Lake Erie and Wisconsin Central).
Kansas City Southern.
Among 24 other railroads represented by the NCCC are Conrail Shared
Assets, Belt Railway of Chicago and Terminal Railroad Association of
Some railroads are within the NCCC coalition for limited
purposes—negotiating nationally with a limited number of unions, or
limiting participation to just wages or benefits or work rules, or some
combination. CSX, for example, will participate in national handling for
wages, benefits and work rules applying to non-operating-craft unions
(such as clerical, mechanical and maintenance), but not participate in
national handling on wages and work rules with operating crafts (those
representing train and engine workers).
Ten of the 12 rail labor unions—representing near 85% of some 125,000
unionized rail workers—have formed a coordinated bargaining coalition
for this negotiating round. They are:
American Train Dispatchers Association (ATDA).
Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET).
Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen.
International Association of Machinists.
International Brotherhood of Boilermakers.
National Conference of Firemen & Oilers.
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Transport Workers Union of America.
Transportation Communications Union/Brotherhood Railway Carmen.
International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail & Transportation
Workers Transportation Division/Railroad Yardmasters of America
In announcing its formation, the coalition said, “We understand the
importance of each union’s autonomy to pursue membership-specific goals
within a framework of broad solidarity.”
Not part of the coalition are the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way
Employes and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail &
Transportation Workers (SMART) Mechanical Division, which will
Among NCCC objectives for healthcare reform are “changes to achieve
mainstream standards in cost-sharing and plan design.” Railroads say
their net cost for providing employee healthcare insurance—plan costs
minus employee contributions—is 52% greater than average employee
plans; even with cost sharing, railroad healthcare plans pay some 90%
of each member’s family healthcare costs compared to the employee’s
Among work rules changes, the NCCC is looking for greater flexibility
in subcontracting in areas “not core to our operations” and that “do
not align with the best deployment and utilization of our skilled
Additionally, the NCCC seeks to reform “provisions that restrict
management discretion over the assignment of work.” Sought is greater
“flexibility over which crafts (as well as employees with certain
qualifications within a craft) may perform work in various
circumstances, when such work may be assigned and performed, the
duration of time the work may be performed, and the circumstances under
which work rules may be relaxed to meet customer demands.”
The NCCC also seeks to “consolidate multiple legacy railroad contracts
within the same workgroup, reducing methods of payment calculation, and
accelerating when certain operational changes may be implemented.” It
also seeks to “relax arbitrary geographical limits on work performed by
train crews, allowing for greater flexibility to timely deploy
well-trained teams to critical projects.”
As to crew consist, two-person crews of one conductor and one
locomotive engineer are required on most Class I railroad freight
trains. “But,” says the NCCC, “to take full advantage” of billions of
dollars in investment in PTC, “railroads must revise outdated or
unnecessary staffing rules that effectively freeze in place current
Class I railroads want to “redeploy conductors to ground-based
positions,” calling it “a natural continuation [of the] evolution” that
moved conductors from the caboose to locomotive cab as new technologies,
such as end-of-train devices, were installed. “In the event that
SMART-TD declines to negotiate over crew consist on a multi-carrier
basis, or the parties are unable to agree on changes in crew consist,”
says the NCCC, “the railroads propose an adjustment to compensation.”
View This Article