Review Board Poised to Settle Railroad Dispute

The deadlocked talks cover roughly 140,000 workers at the nation's biggest freight railroads.

Freight train cars and containers at Norfolk Southern Railroad's Conway Yard, Conway, Pa., April 2, 2021.
Freight train cars and containers at Norfolk Southern Railroad's Conway Yard, Conway, Pa., April 2, 2021.
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Railroad contract talks remain deadlocked after more than two years of negotiations, so President Joe Biden will likely soon have to appoint a board to help settle the dispute.

The National Mediation Board determined Tuesday that mediation isn't working in the joint talks that cover roughly 140,000 workers in 13 unions at the biggest freight railroads. They deliver the raw materials many companies rely upon, as well as the cars, chemicals and containers full of consumer goods the companies make.

The federal law that governs the contract talks says arbitration is the next step, but both sides have to accept that and the unions have said they won't. That means Biden is expected to appoint a Presidential Emergency Board to investigate why the two sides haven't been able to reach a deal and make recommendations.

The unions are optimistic that a board appointed by a self-described pro-union president will be sympathetic to their side, while helping bring the two sides closer together. That board's recommendations are likely to trigger a new round of negotiations.

But the workers are also frustrated after not getting any raises since 2019 and enduring increasingly strict attendance policies that BNSF and Union Pacific have imposed. They want to be compensated for keeping the railroads running during the pandemic and they want their pay to increase enough to offset inflation.

Plus, they have seen nearly one-third of the union jobs eliminated at the major freight railroads in recent years as railroads overhauled their operations.

The unions also vehemently oppose railroad proposals to cut rail crews from two people down to one.

"The railroads have still refused to make an offer remotely 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 tough workplace rules that BNSF and Union Pacific adopted without negotiating make it difficult to take any time off.

Rutgers University professor Todd Vachon, who teaches classes about labor relations, said the railroad contract dispute predates the recent spate of strikes, but the ongoing labor shortages may have the unions feeling more emboldened about pressing their complaints. He said it will be interesting to see what happens if the disagreement falls to Congress to resolve because “the political stakes feel much greater now” and public support for unions is higher than in the past.

“Given that the railways extend through red states and blue states and employ workers of various political persuasions, it could make for interesting bedfellows as elected leaders jockey to position themselves in a positive light,” Vachon said.

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

“It remains in the best interests of all parties — and the public – to settle this dispute, provide for prompt pay increases for all rail employees, and prevent rail service disruptions,” the NCCC said.

A strike, which wouldn't be allowed unless the presidential board fails and Congress refuses to intervene in the dispute, could prove disastrous for the fragile supply chain that is still struggling to recover from the worker shortages during the pandemic.

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

“Treating people like this, you just can’t expect people to come work for you,” he said.

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