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Rail accord doesn't relieve strain on workers, 2 union leaders say

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UPDATED, Nov. 22, 2022, 8 am: Corrects number of days of personal leave allowed in tentative national railroad agreement.


A tentative nationwide railroad collective bargaining deal didn’t make enough progress on quality-of-life issues that unionized railroaders want resolved, Midwest Nebraska Central Labor Council President Jeff Cooley said Monday.

He spoke with The Telegraph after news broke that the national membership of his own SMART-TD union had narrowly refused to ratify the agreement that had narrowly averted a September strike.

With that, four of the nation’s 12 railroad “craft” unions have turned down the deal. That reopens the possibility, as early as Dec. 9, of America’s first national rail strike since 1992.

“There’s some really good positives” in the tentative contract, including sizable raises, one extra paid day off and continued two-person train crews, said Cooley, who also is president of Local 200 of SMART-TD’s transportation division.

But limited flexibility in taking sick time and provisions that devalue union members’ seniority doomed the agreement’s chances at ratification, the Lemoyne-based Union Pacific Railroad conductor said.

“There’s an injustice that’s been done to our members, and they’re asking for justice,” he said. “That’s how I read it.”

He called on Congress and elected officials of both major political parties “to do the right thing and let this process play out” instead of intervening to impose a settlement to avert a strike.

“Let human justice prevail over greed,” he said, asking people on behalf of rail unions “to pray for our members and their families in this ‘David against Goliath’ battle.”

Eight of the 12 craft unions voted to ratify their contracts since the tentative September accord. They include the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, led at North Platte’s Bailey Yard by Local 1920 President and central labor council Secretary-Treasurer Mike Gage.

Despite his own union’s ratification, Gage said Monday, IBEW and the other unions that have approved the deal will nonetheless honor picket lines of SMART-TD and the others that failed to ratify.

In his role with the central labor council, an AFL-CIO affiliate, “we will do all that we can to facilitate solidarity among our member unions and those that have not yet joined (unions) but are encouraged and welcomed to,” he said.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen — whose members form the other half of today’s train crews with the conductors — also announced Monday that their members had ratified the national agreement.

Nonetheless, Cooley said, BLET members likewise will honor picket lines if the dissenting unions and representatives of U.P. and the other major U.S. railroads can’t resolve remaining differences by the Dec. 9 strike date.

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Cooley said Bill Elliot, chairman of Local 388 of the engineers’ union, told him Monday: “We will stand together in whatever comes next.”

Cooley noted that the September accord included a “me-too” clause, meaning that any additional provisions secured by one craft union in the renewed talks would also be applied to members of the other 11 craft unions.

The tentative deal included retroactive pay raises of 3% for 2020 and 3.5% for 2021, a 7% raise for this year and future raises of 4% in 2023 and 4.5% in the contract’s last year of 2024.

But Cooley said SMART-TD members didn’t feel that was nearly enough to make up for the cumulative strain of being on-call at all hours, leaving spouses to pick up the pieces and keep their families going.

“I think about all the (union) members who have had to quit a volunteer fire department, not volunteer to help at a senior center (or) not being able to care for an uncle or a brother or elderly people,” he said.

“Their spouses have had to quit their $50,000- or $60,000-a-year jobs to take care of the home, and that’s an expense.”

He added: “The cost of broken homes is unattainable, and so is the forever list of rail worker hardships that our workers have endured. And I don’t know how they can get a figure to reimburse.”

The September deal’s sick-time provisions aren’t workable, Cooley said, because they limit union members to taking sick time on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and require them to give 30 days’ notice before taking them.

It’s especially unworkable in rural areas like Nebraska, he added, because physicians often travel between towns. “You just don’t know which day they’re going to be in town,” he said.

SMART-TD members were also offended by the tentative agreement’s intent to impose “self-supporting work boards” and “automatic bid service,” Cooley said.

“Extra boards” in railroad jargon, he said, refers to a pool of union members ready to go fill crew gaps where needed in their railroads’ service area.

But the September deal instead would require the next person in seniority behind a laid-off or departed worker to take that person’s place at their work location, Cooley said.

“Self-supporting boards,” he added, “will belittle our seniority so it doesn’t mean as much.”

Cooley said the “automated bid service” provision would end the “seniority bump right,” in which a union member bumped from a job by layoff or a more senior member has 48 hours to put themselves on the list for other jobs in their service area for which he or she would qualify by seniority.

Under the tentative accord, members would be limited in the types of jobs they could seek and the railroad could immediately send them wherever they wanted, he said.

For Union Pacific’s Nebraska employees, that means they could be sent anywhere in the state or as far away as Cheyenne, Wyoming; Council Bluffs, Iowa; or Marysville, Kansas, he said.

“It never ends up well for us” when provisions like self-supporting boards and automatic bid service ends up in national agreements, Cooley said.

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