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US Freight Railroads, Labor Unions Start Collective Bargaining Round

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The U.S. freight railroads have started a new collective bargaining round with 12 labor unions, an association representing the railroads said on November 1. 

The National Railway Labor Conference (NRLC), a group representing more than 30 railroads including almost all of the Class I railroads, said the discussions come at a time when the industry is tackling issues such as automation and safety, systemic declines for commodities such as coal, renewed regulatory interest, operational changes implemented by the railroads and global trade uncertainty. 

Train crew sizes will be another issue that both sides will discuss during this collective bargaining round. Both the unions and the railroads have been filing lawsuits related to state laws that have defined train crew size and the Federal Railroad Administration's decision to stop pursuing a rulemaking requiring a minimum crew size.

"This is not the first time in the industry's long history that railroads and our employees have faced tough challenges," said Brendan Branon, chairman of the NRLC and the National Carriers' Conference Committee, the representative for freight railroads in national bargaining. "But through thoughtful leadership and a willingness to meet our challenges head on, together we can ensure railroads continue to fuel the American economy. We look forward to a constructive bargaining round and reaching agreements to secure a successful future for the industry."

The Railway Labor Act defines how the freight railroads and unions negotiate. Collective bargaining agreements are in place indefinitely. The most recent collective bargaining round occurred from 2014 to 2018.

Although the contracts don't have expiration dates, they do have reopener dates in which the parties can initiate a new round of bargaining. Should the parties proceed, they provide notices to each other that include the contractual changes they're seeking. The railroads gave these notices to the unions on November 1, and the unions have also provided their notices to the NRLC.

Some of the changes that the railroads are requesting are adjusting compensation to market conditions and comparable industries; developing cost-sharing and plan design for healthcare; and defining work rule issues such as train crew staffing. 

Meanwhile, the labor unions also said in their notices that they anticipate discussions on train crew size, healthcare, wages and compensation, especially in light of the ongoing issues facing the rail industry.

"Modernizing our agreements is critical to the railroad industry's long-term ability to compete and provide job security. We cannot ignore external competitive pressures and carry on as if past financial performance is simply guaranteed in the future," according to two notices from several rail unions. The unions were the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the American Train Dispatchers Association and the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail Transportation union – Transportation Division, known as SMART-TD.

They continued, "The security and prosperity of the entire railroad community depends on our continued ability to innovate, adapt and manage our labor costs in a responsible, measured manner. It is in our long-term interest – labor and management alike – to continue to work together toward a future of stable employment, leading pay and benefits, and safe, efficient service."

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