In 2022, the third year of negotiations for a new National Railway Labor Conference contract began. This group is composed of railroad union officials and representatives from Class I railroads. It is responsible for defining new terms. The process is now complete. The Railway Labor Act (RLA) provides a 30-day cooling-off period for the parties. The cooling-off period expires on July 18. Some unions have taken a strike authorization vote in anticipation.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen announced Tuesday that 99.5% of their members voted in favor of a strike. More than 57,000 railroad workers are represented by the union, with 23,000 being directly affected by the current negotiations. Anyone would find it difficult to find a vote by any union in any industry where there was a near 100% agreement. One of the 12 unions that are currently involved in negotiations is the BLET.
In his statement about the vote, Dennis R. Pierce, President of BLET National, summarized the changes brought about by Precision Scheduled Railroading. Class, I railroad carriers reduced their staff by one-third and created longer routes. This has resulted in staff shortages and safety concerns for employees. Pierce says:
Draconian attendance policies were put in place, requiring engineers and conductors daily work with no time off and no chance to be fired. These absurd policies led to thousands of employees being fired or resigned from the industry. The shippers or, as they should be called the customers of the rail industries, are almost as likely to be abused by this business model as the employees.
Pierce claims that PSR has resulted in record profits for carriers. Union members fought through the pandemic, even though they were essential. The rail workers were putting their lives and their families at risk but they received no wage increases. The Class I carriers do not want any oversight of the operation. They want the government to protect them from their unhappy employees.
The rail industry today is running a media campaign asking for government intervention in order to protect them from possible job actions by employees they have abused for many years. This is complete hypocrisy. Despite shipper complaints, the railroads keep telling the Surface Transportation Board and Department of Transportation that the government should not interfere with their failing business model. They now want government intervention to deal with their own employees.
After President Barack Obama created a Presidential Emergency Board under the RLA, to help them resolve their impasse, the parties came to an agreement on the final national contract. President Biden has until July 18, to appoint the PEB to investigate and offer a settlement to the dispute. If Biden fails, the unions can strike from Monday because they have rejected binding arbitration.
Biden can appoint a PED within 30 days. The unions will have 30 days to either accept or reject the report of the board. This would put off a strike that could occur until mid-September. According to Time, the Chamber of Commerce spent considerable resources to get Biden elected. Now, it is asking him to keep the railroads operating. Suzanne Clark, the Chamber CEO, wrote this July 6:
Today, the U.S. business community is facing enormous challenges due to record inflation, labor shortages, and ongoing supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are also facing uncertainty about the possibility of more disruptions as we prepare for the holiday shopping season. A breakdown could be catastrophic for the U.S. economy and consumers, and possibly return us to the supply chain problems that we faced during the pandemic.
Her request for a strike authorization has been ignored by the president, a near-octogenarian. Other unions representing Class I workers will likely follow the lead of one strike authorization that was voted on. As President Biden deals with another month of record inflation, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg appears on Fox News to support the harassment of Supreme Court justices in the public. The deadline could slip by.
If the unions reject the recommendations of the PEB and the carriers attempt to implement their last offer, a strike is legal. In 1992, for two days, trains were stopped from moving because of a labor dispute. The next stoppage could last much longer if Biden or Buttigieg are unable to come up with something. The Democrats would then have to pass an executive order or an act of Congress to get bargaining unit railroad workers back to work before the midterms. These are the only viable options, as they will not succeed in forming a PEB.