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Rail Contract Talks Headed to Mediation: Workers Expect ‘Substantial’ Settlement

Railroad unions representing more than 80 percent of workers said Monday contract negotiations “completely stalled last week” as they now seek intervention from a federal mediator.

The filing on the part of the unions to have the National Mediation Board (NMB) step in to assist with a new collective bargaining agreement comes after more than two years of discussions between the Coordinated Bargaining Coalition (CBC), representing 10 worker unions, and the National Carriers’ Conference Committee, which handles national bargaining agreements for the railroads.

Mediation, binding arbitration and even Congressional intervention can be a part of the collective bargaining process outlined under the Railway Labor Act governing the railroad industry. The additional process layers are included specifically to prevent the possibility of strikes or lockouts that could cripple the U.S. transportation system.

“After carrying our nation through the pandemic, and as the carriers have posted record-breaking profit margins due to their implementation of so-called ‘Precision Scheduled Railroading’ practices, our members have earned, and rightfully expect a substantial contract settlement that recognizes the sacrifices they and their families make each day,” the CBC said in a statement Monday. “Instead, the carriers continue to push proposals that fail to even catch up to the cost of living.”

The unions have proposed wage increases across a six-year period that would be retroactive and adjusted as far back as July 1, 2020. The proposed increases range from 4 percent in 2025 to as much as 10 percent for last year. It also calls for a $5,000 signing bonus and 15 percent pay differential for workers called on during local, state or federal emergencies.

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The railroads’ say their proposal aims “to modernize labor agreements and leverage transformational technologies—including developments in automation and safety—to manage long-term structural changes in rail traffic,” the NCCC said Monday.

“The railroads believe in the collective bargaining process and will continue negotiating in good faith to reach voluntary agreements with the CBC unions,” NCCC chair Brendan Branon said in a statement released Monday evening.

Branon went on to say the carriers “welcome” and “look forward” to discussions with a mediator.

Under the Railway Labor Act, strikes are not allowed over “minor” issues between workers and the carriers.

The difference between what’s defined as a “major” or “minor” dispute is at the heart of a separate matter involving BNSF Railway Co.’s lawsuit filed this month attempting to block two unions, representing more than 17,000 workers, from striking over a new attendance policy set to take effect Feb. 1.

BNSF’s case, filed in Texas Federal Court this month, argues the matter should be dubbed “minor” and sent to arbitration or negotiation. The railroad operator last week asked for a temporary restraining order to block a possible work stoppage it believed could occur as early as this Wednesday, according to court documents.

Unrest among workers in the transportation industry is being closely watched, amid the broader challenges impacting the supply chain.

A risk report released this month by supply chain data company Everstream Analytics said “a reliable workforce will remain elusive” this year as the pandemic continues to batter worker ranks, with the potential for strikes hanging over many collective bargaining talks this year.

The West Coast port contract negotiations are also being closely watched, with that agreement set to expire July 1.