U.S. freight railroads file lawsuit against rail workers’ union over train crew size

Eight U.S. freight railroads have filed a lawsuit against a railroad union, saying the union is refusing to come to the bargaining table to hash out issues involving train crew size.

The railroads say the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division (SMART-TD) is refusing to engage on the issue of train crew size as both sides prepare for an upcoming round of collective bargaining that is slated to start after November 1. 

“SMART-TD has consistently refused to bargain over crew consist [the complement of a train crew], asserting, among other things, that any proposals on this subject are barred by ‘moratorium’ provisions in existing agreements. The railroads disagree with that interpretation, and maintain that any disagreement over the meaning of the moratoriums is a ‘minor dispute’ subject to binding arbitration,” the railroads said in their October 3 court filing to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Fort Worth. The lawsuit defines the moratorium provisions as protections offered to employees in exchange for reductions in crew consist. The railroads say these moratoriums don’t prohibit the railroads from making new proposals on other subjects, including the number, function or assignment of ground service personnel on trains.

The railroads also say SMART-TD is obliged to participate in collective bargaining over train crew size per the Railway Labor Act. Their potential discussions would affect labor arrangements system-wide. 

The railroads involved in the lawsuit include BNSF (NYSE: BRK), CSX (NYSE: CSX), Kansas City Southern (NYSE: KSU), Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC), Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP), the Belt Railway Company of Chicago, and two Canadian National (NYSE: CNI) subsidiaries, the Grand Trunk Western Railroad, which operates in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio and the Illinois Central Railroad, which operates in Illinois and Iowa, with routes connecting to Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans, Louisiana. 

The issue of train crew size has come increasingly under debate after the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) said in a May determination that it was no longer pursuing a proposed rule on whether it should require train crew sizes of at least two crew members. The rail industry has said that establishing the size of a train crew is a discussion more appropriate for the bargaining table and that technologies such as positive train control will enable rail operations to be even safer. Meanwhile, union leaders have said that a minimal train crew size of at least two people enables safer operations, especially as trains become longer. 

Although FRA’s May determination says that state laws requiring minimum train crew sizes were voided as a result, state legislative activity mandating a minimum train crew size has continued, while some members of Congress have introduced bills addressing the issue. The train crew size issue is also being debated in the courts.

SMART-TD said the lawsuit is an “attempt to undermine our collective bargaining agreements” and the bargaining process.

“This is not the first time that the rail carriers have attempted an attack on crew consist. SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson, noting the carriers’ history of unsuccessful attacks on crew consist, stated, ‘this latest attempt is nothing new, and it will once again be met with a vigorous defense.’”

article by Joanna Marsh for freightwaves.com

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