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Some Rail Union Leaders Slam Biden Board’s Recommendations

Some rail union leadership in the contract dispute involving 115,000 workers have expressed initial disappointment with the recommendations released this week from the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) established by President Biden

Twelve different unions are involved in the more than two-year contract negotiations with the nation’s largest railroads, which are being represented by the National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC). While most union leadership is still reviewing the 119-page report, which was released to them by the PEB on Tuesday and made public Wednesday, a few have offered their initial takes. 

“Truthfully, your union negotiators feel a level of disappointment with the PEB’s recommendations falling short on many of our requests—especially as it split the difference between what labor and the carriers were seeking from a wage perspective, rather than choosing one over the other,” said Jeremy Ferguson, president of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers Transportation Division (SMART-TD), in a statement released Thursday. 

Ferguson went on to say the recommendations offered a “slight comfort” over what the carriers had proposed or what the outcome would have been under a different president. However, he slammed the carriers, financial firms and shareholders for reaping the benefits of record profits in recent years off the workers. 

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“SMART-TD leaders made our case clear before the PEB in July that our membership and the membership of the other unions deserve better, especially in recognition of what we accomplished before, during and after the pandemic,” Ferguson said. “Our position has not changed, nor have we wavered from it.” 

The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS) also released a statement Thursday expressing its own disappointment with parts of the report. 

“While the wage adjustments are the highest in modern history, they still fall short of what our members have earned through their hard work in keeping America moving, despite the numerous obstacles,” the organization said. 

BRS called out the PEB’s “lack of acknowledgement of the need for sick days…concerning.” 

“Most importantly, we are disappointed that when presented with numerous statements from our members regarding their increased responsibility, territories, testing requirements, along with technical knowledge, the board refused to address their voices and our craft-specific request. The BRS remains committed to listening to our membership and fighting for their best interests.”

Although the dozen unions involved are negotiating together on a five-year contract that would see the same change in percentage increases to wage rates and bonuses, individual labor groups also have their own requests specific to the requirements of their trade. 

In the case of BRS, it was asking for a separate wage increase on the basis of changes made to that group’s responsibilities, including coverage of larger regions in their duties related to equipment repairs and inspections. 

The PEB’s report recommended that BRS drop its request.  

Paid sick leave was another matter the PEB recommended unions remove from their contract proposal. Labor had asked for 15 paid sick days annually. Carriers argued such a program would come at a cost of $688 million a year, with sick time already covered under paid time off hours accrued and a Supplemental Sickness Benefit Plan program that had been negotiated in prior contracts. 

SMART-TD’s Ferguson said union leaders went before the PEB last month to discuss the need for more time off amid what he called “draconian carrier attendance policies.”

“However, it would seem as if these were not deemed as key issues,” Ferguson said. “Obviously, our preference was for the PEB to make firm and bold changes to that status quo, but, unfortunately, they deferred and moved these important issues back to the domain of arbitration.” 

The PEB’s recommendation on straight wage bumps amounted to a 24 percent compounded increase over the contract’s five-year span, in addition to $5,000 in bonuses. The increase would be the largest for rail workers in more than three decades. 

The PEB proposal aimed for a middle ground between what employers and labor wanted on wages. 

Carriers had offered a 17 percent compounded wage increase and $1,000 signing bonus, while unions asked for a 31.3 percent compounded increase.

The PEB noted the difference between what the two sides proposed in wage increases amounted to more than $9 billion. 

President Biden established the PEB last month after a 30-day cooling off period was set to expire, following a failed resolution in mediation. Had the PEB not been established, rail workers or employers could have engaged in a strike or lockout. 

Release of the PEB report now sets the clock again on another 30-day cooling off period in which union leadership and employers can continue to negotiate based on the board’s recommendations. 

A strike could once again be on the table following the cooling off period’s expiration if agreement on a new contract is still not reached. 

However, Congress, under the Railway Labor Act, could then intervene to thwart the possibility of service disruptions.