Locomotive machinist explains what’s at stake in rail contract negotiations 

Union members voting this week on whether to ratify revised tentative agreement

By Joanna Marsh for freightwaves.com

FreightWaves recently chatted with Josh Hartford, special assistant to the international president for the rail division of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers – District 19 (IAM).

Between Monday and Friday of this week, IAM members are voting whether to ratify the tentative labor agreement between the union and the freight railroads, which are represented by the National Carriers Conference Committee. IAM hopes to tally the votes Saturday.

This is the second time IAM members are voting on a tentative agreement. Members rejected the first tentative agreement in mid-September, which resulted in the union and the railroads going back to the negotiation table. A second tentative agreement was reached in late September. IAM members are voting this week on whether to ratify that agreement.

The union consists of nearly 5,000 members, with most serving as locomotive mechanics working in the shops or the yards. Members are also roadway mechanics who maintain road equipment or conduct rail or building facilities maintenance.

FreightWaves caught up with Hartford to learn more about the contract negotiation process and potential next steps. This question-and-answer interview was edited for clarity and length.

FREIGHTWAVES: Can you explain to readers what’s currently happening with the negotiations process?

HARTFORD: This is our second tentative agreement. Our members voted the first one down by about 60%. So we were able to get back to the table after that to negotiate more than what we originally had. And we feel we have gotten more than the first TA [tentative agreement] and more than what was in the PEB recommendation. 

(Editor’s note: A new labor agreement for each of the 12 unions has been in the works since January 2020, but negotiations between the unions and the railroads failed to progress. In July, President Joe Biden appointed three independent experts to serve on the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), which conducted hearings and received testimony from stakeholders about how the unions and railroads could resolve the impasse. PEB issued its recommendations, which were meant to serve as a jumping-off point for a new contract.)

HARTFORD: During the first tentative agreement, there was a lot of talk about no cap on the health care costs. … We were able to get a cap in the second round. We were able to keep the original language when it comes to wages … [and] the extra paid day off and the recognition bonuses. 

We also were able to get [as part of the revised tentative agreement] an overtime joint study with the NLRC [National Railway Labor Conference, or the freight railroads’ group] to figure out all the overtime that’s going on, whether it’s voluntary or forced overtime, notification of overtime and any meal options that are out there at all these locations. 

Due to PSR [precision scheduled railroading, a method by the railroads to streamline operations] and due to COVID, we’ve lost a considerable amount of members and that just puts extra burden on the ones that are left. It’s not uncommon to work several hours of overtime. We hear stories often of people leaving to go home after their eight-hour shift and managers are tracking him down in the parking lots and telling him, “Hey, you’re forced to stay either another four or another eight [hours],” sometimes with no notice at all. And we’ve argued this point with the carriers numerous times and have been unsuccessful in getting anywhere. But [this tentative agreement] has good language that forces them to the table and to address these issues that we have.

FREIGHTWAVES: What are the main issues for your members and do you feel they’ve been sufficiently addressed with this second tentative labor agreement?

HARTFORD: Like I said, the health care cap was important through that first process. That was probably the largest concern.

The other big issue is paid sick time. We’re part of the shop crafts. [That is] what they call us in the rail industry. And we have supplemental sickness benefits that are included with your railroad sickness benefits, but those don’t kick in until seven days — you have to miss work for seven days. So the problem we have is there is no there’s no paid time off for that seven-day gap. And that is a big, big concern. 

We’ve brought that up numerous times with the carriers throughout negotiations. And as you can tell, with any tentative agreement that’s out there with any craft, unfortunately, the railroads have been just unwilling to to bargain anything over it. There’s no paid sick time in any of the tentative agreements. (Editor’s note: The railroads’ position on sick leave is available here.)

It’s not from lack of trying, lack of our effort to try to make that happen. We have the party across the table that is unwilling to engage in that. Their argument is we negotiated this years ago. And part of that was it would be an unpaid gap to keep the supplemental sickness benefits. I wasn’t a part of that. I don’t know anyone currently negotiating [who was] involved. It does need to change somehow. 

FREIGHTWAVES: What are supplemental sickness benefits?

HARTFORD: Under the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) we have sickness benefits, right? It’d be kind of like long-term or short-term disability. So under the RRB, when you’re out sick, you get [a certain amount of money each day].

The shop crafts have supplemental sickness benefits that go on top of the railroad unemployment and sickness benefits. And that brings your pay almost somewhere around 80% of your take-home pay. That is what you would get between the two, combining the RRB and the supplemental sickness. 

So that’s a negotiated benefit and that is a very good benefit to have. But like I said, the concern is the paid sick leave aspect of that. The rest of the country seems to think of paid sick days as I wake up, I don’t feel good or my child is sick or my wife has an appointment [and so I take a sick day]. We don’t have the ability to take that time off [and have it be paid for the first seven days we’re out].

We’re regularly assigned employees, so the majority of our members work five days and have to rest for two days. So in that seven days [before the benefits kick in], you’re looking at five days [during a week but] it’s a seven-day gap — seven days of no pay. … If you have a single vacation day, you could possibly burn up a vacation day to cover this gap of no pay. 

And it’s kind of a fine line too, because if you miss days, you’re subject to the attendance policy too. So let’s say you do miss a few days for whatever reason. If you’re out for this long period, you could possibly be subject to discipline. I don’t think it’s as excessive as maybe some of these other crafts with unassigned employees. Their issue is a little bit different.

FREIGHTWAVES: If the sickness benefit isn’t addressed to the extent that members might want it addressed in the contract, is IAM planning to pursue the issue via other means, such as through lobbying Congress?

HARTFORD: We’re going to continue to push using any means possible to try to get this for our members. COVID obviously brought a huge light to this and then being considered essential employees having to work through the pandemic but then having no immediate paid sick leave. And yeah, we will engage Congress, Department of Labor and continue to request that the carriers work with us on this. So whatever we need to do, we’re prepared to hopefully get this for our members.

FREIGHTWAVES: Is there a concern that the contract won’t get ratified?

HARTFORD: Anytime we put a ratification vote out, we’re always concerned. We are hopeful, and we do want this to ratify. But if it doesn’t, it’s the membership’s right to vote and reject or approve any agreement. And if they choose to not accept the agreement, then we’ll go back to the table and continue to bargain and stand behind our membership. That’s what we’re prepared to do.

FREIGHTWAVES: Are there any limits for how long this process can continue?

HARTFORD: Legally both parties could agree to extend the status quo period as long as they so choose to. We’ve extended our status quo period — if this doesn’t ratify — until after Dec. 8. So Dec. 9, technically, at this point, if this doesn’t ratify … we see no reason to extend beyond the status quo right now. Now, that obviously is subject to change, right? … If we’re making real progress, then that could potentially come up. But that’s not in the plans at the moment. 

FREIGHTWAVES: Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

HARTFORD: Machinists are highly skilled employees in the rail industry. We’ve had to deal with PSR and watched our members — and our members have watched their friends and co-workers — be furloughed because of PSR. And then COVID hit and we saw even more reductions. 

The ones who are staying and working are continually getting asked to do more with less. And it’s tough. It makes the work environment toxic at times. And it’s unfortunate that members are having to live and work in these conditions. And I think, in the last few months, there’s been some real light shed on the subject. And hopefully, we can make some real changes out of this.

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