Health care at center of dispute among railroad unions

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A Norfolk Southern welder works on a diamond crossing at Marion, Ohio, in January 2008.
Brent Kneebush
WASHINGTON – Three years of labor negotiations have stalled after labor unions representing railroad workers failed to come to an agreement on health care provisions, Labor Notes reports.

Two of the three labor unions involved in the dispute reached a tentative agreement with railroad carriers that preserved work rules and secure its members a raise: Coordinated Bargaining Group, an umbrella group that covers 85,000 workers in six unions, including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen; and the SMART-affiliated United Transportation Union.

A third coalition, comprised of SMART mechanical and maintenance-of-way employees, say that these advancements come at the expense of the health care packages the railroads provide to their employees. Railroad labor disputes are regulated under the Railway Labor Act, which specifies that collective bargaining agreements within the industry have no expiration date and that lockouts and strikes are legal only after an interlude of federally-mediated negotiations. Congress retains the power to order striking railroad employees to go back to work.

That provision has some workers worried that should the unions protest the agreement as it is structured now, officials in the Trump administration could intercede to sway the proceedings entirely in the railroad's favor.

“I don’t like the agreement – it’s concessionary,” says Ross Grooters, a locomotive engineer with Union Pacific who serves as the legislative rep for BLET Division 778 in Des Moines, Iowa. “But we’re led to believe that the alternative is much, much worse...I don’t know if as railroad labor we’re organized enough to take on this fight.”

Others, though, say the concessions on health care will cost almost half of railroad families to stomach the average $3,900 cost of healthcare increasing to $5,000. Some would see their bills skyrocket to $9,000.

“It’s an outright cost-shift directly to sick members, their wives, and their children,” Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes president Freddie Simpson says.

The report notes that some members of the bargaining group have considered the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes’s presence in the negotiations to be interference: The regulations and labor concerns of maintenance-of-way workers are not necessarily those of train and engine crews. However, bargaining group leaders have been reaching out to union leadership representing other railroad-industry trades in order to help build support for the deal.

Freight rail workers have not gone on strike since 1992, but workers on both sides recognize that how the dispute is will have lasting repercussions.

“I’ve got another 30 years until I can retire,” says Tom Modica, a Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes member who works for Norfolk Southern, “That’s a long career of having to pay more for health care. If I’m going to get screwed, I might as well get screwed fighting.”
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