By Thomas A. Moran for dailyinterlake.com
| January 8, 2023 12:00 AM
I have closely followed the two and a half year long saga of contract negotiations between the nation’s major railroads and labor organizations from the perspective of a former BNSF Railway employee and SMART-TD union representative. The recent front page article in the Daily Inter Lake (New contract doesn’t fix working conditions, say rail workers, Dec. 18) outlined the dispute in good detail, but I feel there is some additional historical background that could bolster the strength of its message.
President Joe Biden formed a Presidential Emergency Board last summer in order to facilitate a contract settlement between the parties. PEB 250, as it is now known, addressed the open issues the two parties were unable to bridge at the negotiation table and for the most part was able to resolve them. It is important to note that reaching the ultimate means to an end of a railroad labor dispute does not necessarily indicate all issues associated with the failed negotiations are successfully resolved. Oftentimes, neither party will get exactly what they’ve been looking for. In this case, it appears that the major issue left on the floor in the wake of a national pandemic was sickness benefits for train and engine employees.
The nation’s railroads, like most other U.S. businesses, were caught off-guard and off-balance when the first wave of Covid-19 ran unimpeded across the nation. Operating in a business sector for which “just in time” delivery has become the rule rather than an exception, meant the trains had to roll according to plan, regardless of the potential dangers to the labor pool.
By the time the PEB recommendations were made public, leaving only the president’s pen to put them in play, I came to the conclusion that even a brief railroad strike appeared to be in order. Railroad management has traditionally made the bulk of their deals with labor on the steps of the courthouse, so to speak, but at this time management has made it clear that they were dug in and looking for relief from the government and the Railway Labor Act.
Neither the railroads nor their labor pool has faced a serious threat of a strike or lockout in decades and as so, both parties have largely remained in their respective corners, confident that the provisions afforded by the RLA, Congress or the court system would serve as the backstop to keep the trains running and paychecks filled. Both parties were free to grumble among and between themselves while business as usual took place on the rails.
The last time the railroads and labor organizations reached this point involved the alteration of the 1980 Crew Consist Agreement. Over the following decade, the railroads successfully negotiated reductions in crew sizes on a number of properties represented by individual divisions of labor organizations, but was unable to reach agreement with the Burlington Northern North Lines. The dispute finally arrived in the halls of Congress and was settled by the implementation of PEB 219.
Through freight train and engine crews were largely reduced from one engineer, one conductor and two brakemen to an engineer and conductor. Provisions were made to assign brakemen to certain through freight assignments and all local freight and yard crews were reduced to two ground personnel. Minor regional disputes concerning the use of the agreement continued to be settled through time claim conferences between local labor representatives and managers, with both the crew conference and general agreements as guides.
About 15 years ago, that all began to change. The senior labor relations managers, who had served through the various mergers that eventually formed what is now the BNSF Railway, began to reach retirement age and were replaced by a new crop of labor experts for whom agreement and precedent meant little to nothing in settling local claims.
Major sections of the general agreement and the crew consist agreement were effectively put through a shredder, with most all legitimate local time claim disputes summarily denied. What was once settled locally by negotiation and reason has now become a monstrous backlog of files of unanswered and unpaid claims. Disputes of that sort are no longer subject to settlement at the local level and continue to be left unanswered by BNSF labor relations at the general chairman’s level as well.
As one might suspect, this decade plus assault on logic and reason has worn the labor pool quite thin. So, when push came to shove, BNSF employees have revealed themselves to be more than willing to plant a flag on a hill in the name of what looks from the outside like the small issue of a few guaranteed sick days. Yes, the job pays very well and the check never fails to be deposited in your bank account each couple weeks, but there comes a point when even a well-heeled company can’t simply throw enough money at their labor problems to make them go away.
Thomas A. Moran retired from BNSF Railway in 2012.