Rail workers negotiations to avoid strike: live updates

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OMAHA, Nebraska, USA (AP) — Railroad workers reached an agreement Thursday that will lead to 24% raises and $5,000 bonuses over five years and will also address some of your concerns about strict attendance and time off rules.

The agreement that is retroactive to 2020 will give rail workers the biggest raises they have seen in more than four decades. But concessions related to working conditions may be more important to them. The nation’s largest railroads, including Norfolk Southern, CSX, BNSF, Union Pacific and Kansas City Southern, jointly bargained with 12 unions.

Railroad workers will now be able to take unpaid days off for medical appointments without being penalized under rail attendance rules. Previously, workers lost points under the attendance systems that BNSF and Union Pacific had adopted and were penalized.

The last three unions to remain at the bargaining table — the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Trainmen’s Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division; and the Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen. — together they represent about 60,000 of the 115,000 rail workers in the 12 unions involved in the talks.

As with the other unions that have agreed to a deal with the railroads, the financial terms closely follow the recommendations of the Emergency Presidential Board that President Joe Biden created last month.

The other nine unions that had reached agreements had a provision in their agreements that would allow them to receive additional benefits equal to those obtained by the remaining unions through negotiations. Therefore, it is likely that they could also benefit from the concessions obtained by unions representing engineers and drivers.

Unions representing the conductors and engineers who run the trains had pushed hard for attendance rules to be changed because they said the policies made it difficult to take time off. The unions said this agreement sets a precedent that they will be able to negotiate on such rules in the future. But workers will still have to vote on whether those changes are enough to pass the deal.

Victor Chen, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies labor, said addressing concerns about working conditions has increasingly become a priority for unions and the workers they represent. Railroad unions pointed to attendance and workload rules after major railroads cut nearly a third of their workforce, some 45,000 jobs, in the past six years.

The rail industry has aggressively cut costs everywhere and changed its operations to rely more heavily on fewer and longer trains, allowing fewer locomotives and fewer employees to be used. The unions said the remaining workers, particularly engineers and drivers, were on call 24/7 due to job cuts and could hardly take time off under strict attendance rules.

“At a certain point, good wages are simply not enough to offset the cost that these kinds of working conditions impose on workers,” Chen said. “Companies must treat workers as human beings, rather than just inputs in a business process.”

Unions had an advantage at the bargaining table due to the tight labor market and ongoing service problems on the railways, Chen said. Shippers have complained loudly this year about delays and poor service as railroads struggled to quickly hire enough workers to handle a spike in demand as the economy emerged from the pandemic. The shortage of workers has led other unions to go on strike in the last two years, and union organizing efforts have increased with prominent campaigns to establish unions at Starbucks, Amazon and other companies.

But Chen said rail unions had additional leverage due to persistent supply chain problems.

In one of the biggest strikes of the past year, more than 10,000 Deere workers won 10% raises and better benefits, but those gains came after workers struck for a month and rejected two offers from the company.

But it may not be clear for several weeks whether rail workers will support these deals.

One union already voted Wednesday to reject a deal based on the Emergency Presidential Board recommendations, but that union’s members of the International Association of Machinists agreed to delay any strike action until September 29 to allow for further negotiations. Two other rail unions voted to approve agreements on Wednesday.

Rutgers University professor Todd Vachon, who teaches classes on labor relations, said that since the pandemic, working conditions have increasingly been a key part of labor disputes, sometimes rivaling wages and benefits. Railroad workers were particularly attuned to work-life balance and the ability to take time off for health reasons.

That has led to a “real resurgence in the labor movement that goes beyond just reacting to inflation,” Vachon said.

The Emergency Presidential Board recommended significant increases, but told the unions to address their concerns about working conditions through arbitration that can drag on for years or additional negotiations at each railroad.

The unions pushed for better working conditions immediately.

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