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Rail Carriers Submit Union Busting Proposal
      IN EARLY NOVEMBER, The National Carriers' Conference Committee (NCCC), representing most of the nation's large freight railroad companies, served notice to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLE&T) and the United Transportation Union (UTU) concerning the Committee's position on wages, rules and benefits for the upcoming year's round of collective bargaining. Since the 1930s, the NCCC has assumed master contract bargaining on behalf of the majority of the carriers vis-à-vis the myriad craft union "brotherhoods"; i.e., engineers, track workers, car inspectors, trainmen, etc.      What is alarming about the NCCC's proposal this time around is that the carriers are not only pursuing the expected demands for give-backs in health insurance and work rules, they are seeking to outright alter the face of railroading forever through craft consolidation, job eliminations, and a complete restructuring of the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) which governs compensation for on-the-job injuries in the rail industry. In addition, the rail industry wishes to implement additional restrictions on the right to strike or take other "self-help" activities, and to invoke crushing sanctions against employees and the union if and when they engage in such actions. The tone of the entire 9-page document, identical in its entirety to both unions, is cocky, confrontational, and combative.      The NCCC claims that the railroads' current labor cost model "produces relentless labor cost inflation." Specifically, the Committee claims that current agreements mandate staffing levels that a) require the employment of more workers than necessary; and b) impose "above-market" wage and benefit costs. Therefore the carriers propose that all train and engine positions (engineer, conductor, brakeman, etc.) be "consolidated", the new position to be renamed "transportation employee". The separate contracts now in effect, one for trainmen (held by the United Transportation Union -- UTU), the other for engineers (held by the BLE&T) would apparently then be rolled into a single common agreement. While the initial proposal does not spell out their plans in detail, there can be no doubt what this means: "crew size shall be based on operational needs as determined by the railroad." The carriers, having achieved the elimination of thousands of yard engineer positions across the country in the last few years with the implementation of Remote Control Operation (RCO), have obviously now set their sites on achieving single employee operation of over-the-road trains, in effect, the elimination of the conductor position. As a parting shot in this section of the document, the NCCC chides that "absent agreement on staffing/consolidation, to the extent that any collective bargaining agreement requires a crew size which exceeds operational needs, the compensation of the entire crew shall not exceed the compensation which would have been paid to the crew had crew staffing been determined by the railroad by operational needs alone. Such reduced compensation shall be divided equally among the crew members." (italics added). In other words, the carriers are stating that they wish to operate with single-person crews, and if the union refuses to agree, the carriers say fine then, the two of you will have to now split the wage of one; i.e., a fifty percent pay cut!      The Carriers' proposal goes on to gripe about employees' taking unscheduled time off work, and proposes that if and when an employee fails to meet the railroad's attendance standard, that a proportional reduction be made in the railroad's contributions toward that employee's benefits based on the percentage of his/her availability. This is a particularly insulting demand, considering that engineers and trainmen traditionally have accumulated NO sick leave; i.e., when a T&E employee "marks off" sick or otherwise, there is NO wage compensation whatsoever.     But perhaps the most controversial section of the NCCC proposal involves changes and add-ons to federal legislation which governs employment in the rail industry. First off, the carriers are proposing to replace the existing FELA legislation with a "no-fault" system of compensation. While FELA may have its inefficiencies and problems, the carriers' desire to change it to a system more like workers compensation has less to do with efficiency than it has to do with wanting to circumvent the payout of large sums of money to employees who are critically injured due to negligence on the part of the railroad. The NCCC's final jab here: "If a joint legislative proposal ... is not developed and enacted, all rates of pay will be reduced by an amount that represents the excess costs to the railroads attributable to FELA." (italics added).      Second, the NCCC proposes to negotiate "add-ons" which would make the right to strike and take "self help" even more restricted than is currently the case under the Railway Labor Act (RLA). While the NCCC does not actually propose changes to the Act, the Committee proposes that the union negotiate agreement that it be required to give ten days advance written notice to the railroad of any picket, strike, boycott, slowdown or other "self-help" activity. In addition, the NCCC suggests that during any form of job action, any of its member railroad companies would have the unilateral right to suspend any pay and protective provisions of any union agreement, and end agreements which provide for union or agency shop or deduction of union dues. Here, the NCCC offers its final kick in the teeth: "For the duration of the action, the railroad will, at its sole discretion, have the right to determine compensation for employees." (italics added).      Taken as a whole, the NCCC proposal is nothing short of a union busting initiative. With the Republicans firmly in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, the carriers appear to be poised to launch an all-out assault upon the wages, benefits, and work rules of the nation's railroaders. In the early 1980s, on the heels of deregulation of the industry and the election of Ronald Reagan, the carriers launched their last major offensive against rail labor. Over the past twenty to twenty-five years or so, the carriers have gotten nearly everything they have wanted. The implementation of new technology has decimated the ranks of U.S. railroaders. Firemen, brakemen, switchmen, and operators have been largely eliminated. Other crafts, including dispatchers, clerks, maintenance-of-way and mechanical personal have all seen their numbers eroded through new technology, job consolidations, and outsourcing. By the dawn of the 21st century, U.S. railroaders had easily become the world's most efficient rail workers based upon tonnage moved-per-mile-per-man.      During this period, there were a number of strikes in the industry, both against the NCCC and its member railroads as well as against non-member roads as well (Norfolk & Western 1978, Soo Line 1994). However, these attempts were largely defeated by the carriers. The national strikes were quickly ended when the unions were ordered back to work by the U.S. Congress, usually within 24 hours. The unions were then subject of a hostile ruling by a stacked Presidential Emergency Board (PEB). Rail workers and their unions are covered by the Railway Labor Act which predates the National Labor Relations Act, the legislation passed in the 1930s to protect most other private sector workers' rights to organize and strike. The RLA provides for an extremely complex and convoluted process whereby unions make take "self-help" action, but only after a lengthy period of negotiation, notification, cooling off, etc. And once these hoops are carefully jumped through and the union actually takes self-help, the U.S. Congress can simply order the membership to stop taking self-help; i.e.,. issue a back-to-work order. This process usually ends with the President appointing a 3-member PEB which hears evidence and then issues a binding decision upon both parties, the carrier(s) and the union(s).     It goes without saying of course, that the NCCC proposal is no more than a "wish list", a vision of a world in which the carriers would love to operate. How much of this vision they will be able to achieve remains to be seen. What they are capable of winning is inversely proportional to how much the unions and the rank-and-file railroader are ready, willing, and able to resist.  Unfortunately, in the face of this assault, the two craft unions that represent train and engine employees -- the BLE&T and the UTU -- are beset by division and scandal. Never on friendly terms, the two unions have become increasingly hostile to one another, particularly following the failed merger attempts of a few years ago. The UTU withdrew from the AFL-CIO after being charged with raiding the BLE, and the latter went on to undertake what for some engineers is an uncomfortable marriage with the Teamsters (The BLE renamed itself the the BLE and "T" for trainmen, a reflection of its attempt to woo trainmen away from the ranks of the UTU). Meanwhile the UTU has been plagued by scandal at its highest levels, its president and past president both convicted of racketeering charges earlier this year. Coupled together with the Republicans' triumph in the recent elections, it should come as no surprise that the carriers are capitalizing on this opportunity to take advantage of the unions' malaise.      This contract struggle will come as a first test of the newly reconstituted BLE&T, a union that has traditionally (for some 140 years) represented just one craft -- that of engineer -- but for the last year has been welcoming trainmen into its ranks, organizing both crafts on short line railroads and encouraging defections from the UTU. The union won a winner-take-all election earlier this year on the Canadian Pacific, adding thousands of new trainmen to its ranks. Will the union now resist the temptation to cut a deal with the NCCC and sell out the trainmen? It was just a few short years ago that the UTU itself cut a deal with the carriers on RCO, much to the chagrin of the engineers union. Obviously, with trainmen swelling their ranks now, it may be more difficult, but hardly impossible for the BLE&T to engage in such treachery. Will the engineers' union and the track workers' union, the Brotherhood of Maintenance-of-Way Employees (BMWE), now both members of the newly formed "Teamsters Rail Conference" of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) stick together and back each other up in negotiations?  Perhaps the biggest unknown: will the IBT use its strength in the transportation industry to support the railroaders? And if "self-help" is taken by the nation's railroaders, will the IBT leadership and the rank-and-file in trucking act in solidarity with the railroaders by taking direct action, including the refusal to handle struck freight? If such job action comes to pass, this would assuredly be a real test of  Hoffa's "seamless transportation union". And what of the UTU? With this latest concerted attack by the carriers upon the "running trades", the trainmen (conductors) appear to have the most to lose. Will the future find the trainmen's union knocking on the door for admittance into the Teamsters Rail Conference? Divided and conquered for years, are the various brotherhoods possibly on the threshold of a new era of unity and solidarity? Or will the NCCC's offensive simply result in even further division, disarray, and demoralization?      For well over a hundred years, rail labor has been artificially divided along craft lines. At one point, 26 different craft unions represented workers on the nation's railroads, a number which has now been pared down to a dozen or so. In the face of shrinking membership figures, together with the NCCC attack, the future will no doubt see further mergers, amalgamations and recombinations as the aging and crippled craft unions attempt to survive and remain relevant. Regardless what face that rail labor takes on, it should be obvious that the only way to stave off the offensive of the carriers is to stand united across crafts and across union lines. The unions must at this point put aside their differences and call a truce to their animosities. They must set unity in the face of the NCCC union busting proposal as their top priority. An immediate joint proclamation by the leadership of all rail labor, not just the BLE and UTU, that we will unite against the NCCC initiative would be a good start. In addition, the leadership of all craft brotherhoods should immediately sound the alarm to their respective memberships -- an injury to one is an injury to all.  And its up to us -- the rank-and-file -- to stand up for each other across crafts and fight back. Ron Kaminkow BLE & T District 27

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