Railroad talks stall, so Biden likely picks rating board

Railroad talks stall, so Biden likely picks rating board

Railroad talks stall, so Biden likely picks rating board

Rail contract negotiations remain stalled after more than two years of negotiations, so President Joe Biden will likely need to appoint a board of directors soon to help resolve the dispute.

The National Mediation Council found on Tuesday that mediation is not working in joint discussions involving about 140,000 workers in 13 unions at the largest freight railways. They provide the raw materials that many companies rely on, as well as the cars, chemicals and containers full of consumer goods that the companies make.

The federal law governing contract negotiations says arbitration is the next step, but both sides must accept that and the unions have said they won’t. That means Biden is expected to appoint an emergency presidential council to investigate why the two sides have been unable to negotiate a deal and make recommendations.

The unions are optimistic that a board of directors appointed by a self-proclaimed pro-union chairman will sympathize with their side while helping to bring the two parties closer together. The council’s recommendations are likely to lead to a new round of negotiations.

But the workers are also frustrated after not getting a pay rise since 2019 and undergoing increasingly strict attendance policies imposed by BNSF and Union Pacific. They want to be compensated for keeping the railroads running during the pandemic and they want their wages to rise enough to offset inflation.

In addition, in recent years, they have seen nearly a third of union jobs disappear on the major freight railways as the railways have overhauled their operations.

The unions also strongly oppose railway proposals to reduce train crews from two to one.

“The railroads have still refused to make an offer close to what their employees would consider ratifying,” said Dennis Pierce, the national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

The unions say the strict workplace rules that BNSF and Union Pacific passed without negotiation are making it difficult to take time off.

Professor Todd Vachon of Rutgers University, who teaches classes on industrial relations, said the rail contract dispute predates the recent spate of strikes, but ongoing labor shortages may have left unions feeling more encouraged to file complaints. He said it will be interesting to see what happens if the disagreement has to be resolved by Congress, because “political interests now seem much greater” and public support for unions is greater than in the past.

“Since the railroads stretch through red and blue states and employ workers of different political persuasions, it could be interesting bedfellows as an elected leader jockey to present themselves in a positive light,” Vachon said.

The National Carriers’ Conference Committee, which represents UP, BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, Kansas City Southern and other railroads, said it was disappointed that the mediation failed.

“It remains in the best interests of all parties — and the public — to resolve this dispute, ensure prompt pay increases for all rail workers, and avoid disruptions to rail service,” the NCCC said.

A strike, which would not be allowed unless the presidential council fails and Congress refuses to intervene in the dispute, could spell disaster for the fragile supply chain that still struggles to recover from workforce shortages during the pandemic.

The railroads are already having trouble delivering goods on time this year, mainly because they can’t hire workers fast enough to keep their trains on schedule as companies try to ship more. The railroads have said the main solution to their current shipping problems will be to hire and train hundreds of additional workers — something Pierce suggests would be much easier if the railroads offered workers a better deal.

“When you treat people like that, you just can’t expect people to come and work for you,” he said.