OMAHA, Neb. – The head of the nation's largest railroad union says the report designed to help resolve stalled contract talks with freight railroads doesn't do enough to address concerns about working conditions, even though it suggests 24% raises.
The railroads indicated earlier this week that they were ready to hammer out a deal based on the recommendations of the Presidential Emergency Board that Joe Biden appointed last month. But Thursday's first comments from union leadership suggest that the 115,000 workers they represent may not be ready to sign off.
Both sides have 30 days to negotiate a contract before federal law would allow a strike or lockout to happen. But if both sides do get to mid September without an agreement, Congress is likely to intervene and impose terms to avert a strike.
The recommendations of the advisory were a “vast improvement” over the railroads’ previous proposals, said Jeremy Ferguson, president of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — Transportation Division union that represents conductors. But, he added, “the recommendations do not go far enough to provide our members with the quality of life that they have earned, and that both they and their families deserve.”
The other 11 unions involved in the contract talks haven't yet commented on the details. Ferguson's comments echo some of the concerns individual railroad workers have been posting online since the report was released Tuesday.
Workers want the railroads to ease some of their restrictive attendance policies that they say keep them on call and make it hard to take any days off. The unions also say that the always difficult railroad work has become significantly more demanding in recent years after major freight railroads eliminated nearly one third of their jobs.
The railroads maintain that they don't need as many employees and locomotives as they used to because they overhauled their operations to run fewer, longer trains.
Ferguson said the recommendations from the panel of arbitrators don't do much to resolve the divide between railroad investors and executives who have benefitted from the recent record profits, and the workers who keep the trains running 24-7 and toiled throughout the pandemic.
The arbitrators said most of the unions' concerns about working conditions should be resolved through arbitration, which can drag on for years, instead of through the contract negotiations. The contract talks themselves have been going on for more than two years already.
The group that negotiates on behalf of the major railroads, the National Carriers Conference Committee, said the recommended deal would deliver the biggest raises in decades and push average railroad salaries up to $110,000 a year by the end of the five-year deal.
In addition to the raises, which are bigger than the 17% ones railroads were offering but not as generous as the 31% raises the unions sought, the recommended deal would include five $1,000 bonuses and one additional paid leave day a year.
Another key sticking point in the negotiations has been the railroads' proposal to cut train crews from two people down to one. The unions firmly oppose that move not just to protect jobs but also because they say they are concerned about safety.
Federal regulators proposed a rule last month that will require two-person crews in most instances, but railroads have continued pressing for the change because they say a new automatic braking system that can stop trains in certain circumstances makes having a second person in the cab unnecessary.