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Brotherhood of Railroad Signalment votes down tentative railroad labor agreement

At a time when freight rail industry stakeholders continue to keep a watchful eye on the current status of the national collective bargaining negotiations between Class I United States freight railroad carriers and railroad labor unions, another railroad labor union, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS) has not ratified the recent tentative agreement with the railroads.

That was the word from the National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC), an organization representing the nation’s freight railroads in national collective bargaining.

“We are disappointed that the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS) has failed to ratify the recent tentative agreement with the nation’s freight railroads, delaying the benefits of the tentative agreement for BRS-represented employees and further extending resolution of the bargaining round with BRS,” said NCCC in a statement. “The NCCC and BRS have agreed to maintain the status quo period until early December. As such, the failed ratification does not present risk of an immediate service disruption.”

NCCC said that six railroad labor unions have ratified the national bargaining round based on recommendations from the Presidential Advisory Board appointed by President Biden, which is focused on resolving the ongoing labor dispute between Class I rail carriers and 12 U.S.-based rail labor unions on reaching labor accord.  And it added that tentative agreements with four other railroad unions remain subject to ratification. BRS is one of two railroad labor unions—along with the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (BMWED), that has not ratified agreements based on the PEB’s recommendations and is without a tentative agreement pending ratification.

The PEB’s recommendations, which were released on August 16, include a 24% wage increase over the five-year period from 2020 through 2024, coupled with a 14.1% wage increase that is effective immediately, as well as five annual $1,000 lump sum payments, with NCCC noting that a portion of the lump sum payments are retroactive and will be paid out promptly upon ratification of the agreements by the unions’ membership.

BRS mailed out 6,339 ballots to its membership, with 73.18% of membership—or 4,639—participating, yielding the following results: 1,820 (39.23 % of Received Ballots) Yes, Approve; 2,810 (60.57% of Received Ballots) No, Do Not Approve; and 9 (.2% of Received Ballots) Spoiled Ballots.

“For the first time that I can remember, the BRS members voted not to ratify a National Agreement, and with the highest participation rate in BRS history,” said BRS President Michael Baldwin. “I have expressed my disappointment throughout the process in the lack of good-faith bargaining on the part of the NCCC, as well as the part PEB 250 played in denying BRS members the basic right of paid time off for illness. The NCCC and PEB also both failed to recognize the safety-sensitive and highly stressful job BRS members perform each day to keep the railroad running and supply chain flowing. Without Signalmen, the roadways and railroad crossings would be unsafe for the traveling public, and they shoulder that heavy burden each day. Additionally, the highest offices at each Carrier, as well as their stockholders, seem to forget that the rank-and-file of their employees continued to perform their job each day through an unprecedented pandemic, while the executives worked from home to keep their families safe.”

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) has continued to make the case for what is at stake should deals not be struck with the remaining unions that have yet to reach new labor deals.

It has explained that these negotiations between the freight rail sector and its employees address quality of life issues, including historic pay raises and maintain premium healthcare plans, adding it has reiterated its support for rail employees and the Presidential Emergency Board’s (PEB) recommendations.

And it also stated that through the PEB’s recommendations, railroad employees would maintain some of the best healthcare plans in the U.S., as well as receive an additional day of personal time off and also continue to have multiple options for time off, adding that for those railroad employees operating trains the agreements include what it called enhanced abilities to schedule time off and local agreements to be finalized following ratification of the national agreement, which will augment quality of life and schedule predictability.

“Rarely in modern history has the U.S. freight rail industry been such a focus of national attention,” said AAR president and CEO Ian Jefferies in a statement. “Thankfully, there are some foundational truths that observers should note, namely that railroad jobs are among the most critical in the country—and are justly compensated accordingly. Ratification of new contracts molded by the Biden administration and endorsed by labor leaders at the bargaining table will only improve the quality and benefits of railroading.”

The AAR’s top executive said that railroads are pleased to see that the PEB’s recommendations focused on issues related to railroad employees taking time off, coupled with the U.S. freight rail industry offering leave programs allowing employees to receive sickness benefits that can kick in after four days of absences and are able to last up to 52 weeks.

“Six of the twelve unions have ratified, and this must not be discounted,” Ted Greener, AAR’s AVP, Public Affairs, told LM. “Their vote matters and affirms these are good deals. Leadership and clear communication to voting members about the undeniably historic gains provided in these deals can only help in successfully ending this round of bargaining.”

As for what U.S. freight railroads can do to work with their shipper customers in an efficient and effective way in the event of any type of labor stoppage, or strike, Greener emphasized that the parties are focused on ratification, as railroads and their customers, and industry groups continue to be communicating and in touch to ensure they are aware of the process.

“In September, as a shutdown became more of a possibility, communication increased and would if needed again in the future,” he said. “Working together is paramount. As is listening. The railroads understand the importance of the sticking point around leave policies. The fact that the deals enable parties to further address these in the future at the local level is important.”

Tony Hatch, president of New York-based ABH Consulting, recently told LM that railroad labor union leadership strongly want these agreements approved.

“They’ll look bad if it’s not approved, and they want to keep their jobs,” he said. “That’s a really important thing to consider. Just think of it like any other elected official; they want to be doing what they are doing and if their constituents feel like they did not do right by them, the leadership is gone.”

What’s more, Hatch said that if a strike were to occur, there would likely be a subsequent impact on many other industries that run on a just-in-time basis, like automotive and steel, with workers in those sectors being laid off, albeit not likely for a long time. And he added that when a deal is ultimately reached, it is likely to be very close to the PEB’s recommendations.

“There will be some people like Bernie Sanders, who want to interfere,” he said. “But will Congress, really, in an election year, want to interfere on behalf of rail workers in a way that’s more complicated? They don’t really understand all the rules, in a way that could potentially be hurting other workers and hurting the economy. Do they want to be viewed as hurting the economy. Behold the unions when they go back to the votes. A strike like this could very well last only one day or even less. All the things labor is saying and the AAR’s report saying that a strike could cost the economy $2 billion a day is to make sure Congress does its job, which is to basically do nothing and rubber stamp the PEB’s recommendations.”

About the Author

Jeff Berman, Group News Editor

Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. Contact Jeff Berman

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