A cooling-off period that starts today could soon lead to presidential intervention in contract disputes between 11 national rail unions and the largest U.S. freight railroads, after the National Mediation Board released those unions from its oversight of long-running negotiations.
The action affects most rail workers except for train conductors or others in the United Transportation Union, the single largest rail union, which struck its own deal with the National Carriers’ Conference Committee. UTU members recently ratified that contract.
But locomotive engineers, track maintenance crews and many other rail crafts such as signal operators, boilermakers and sheet metal continued to negotiate through the NMB-mediated talks until the board’s action this week.
The NCCC represents about 30 railroads, including most of the Class I majors and some regional lines that together haul over 90 percent of U.S. rail freight.
Now, President Obama would be expected to step in to avert a potential economy-crippling strike or lockout before the cooling-off period ends in 30 day, by creating a Presidential Emergency Board. That panel would make its own contract recommendations for the two sides.
An emergency board would also have specific additional deadlines that could put off any potential labor disruption until early December, or past the autumn intermodal peak season and fall harvest shipment period.
In the past, the first large rail labor agreement to be negotiated often became the pattern for the rest of the industry, but this time the 11 unions resisted following the UTU’s example for their own contracts.
A. Kenneth Gradia, NCCC chairman, said the rail negotiators were “extremely disappointed by the board’s decision to end mediation.” Railroads were willing to accept binding arbitration offered by the agency, he said, but unions declined. Now, Gradia expects Obama to appoint an emergency board before Oct. 7.
But W. Dan Pickett, who chairs the Rail Labor Bargaining Coalition that represents six of the unions, including the large ones for train engineers and track workers, said the railroads’ insistence on using the UTU deal to shape other contracts Rail Labor Bargaining Coalition “is designed to frustrate multi-union, multi-employer bargaining.”
Pickett said that approach by the carriers either “imposes the UTU’s unique interests on the rest of rail labor” or “seeks to restore a bygone era in which a strong, unified industry bargained separately with individual unions to the detriment of employee interests.”
-- Contact John D. Boyd at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/jboydjoc