Obama Averts Railroad Workers’ Strike,
Extending Concessions Conflict
BY MIKE ELK
TUESDAY OCT 11, 2011 5:47 PM
WASHINGTON D.C.--While the growing Occupy Wall Street
movement was grabbing headlines last week, little
attention was paid to President Obama's decision to block
a massive railroad strike called for by nearly 25,000
railroad workers. Railroad strikes are powerful: They
disrupt the normal flow of commerce and in the late 1880s
created the leverage that helped launch the labor
Explaining his decision to avert a rail strike, President
Obama said, "It's in our national interest to make sure
our freight rail system runs smoothly, since a disruption
could affect businesses across the country and cause
unnecessary damage to our already-fragile economy."
Obama's decision to prevent the strike must be a relief to
investors, many of whom have likely watched activists' new
"occupations" with gritted teeth.
Currently, 11 unions representing 92,000 railroad workers
are negotiating a contract with the the National Carriers'
Conference Committee (NCCC), an industry group
representing the major railroad associations. Despite the
four largest railroad carriers alone making more $8.5
billion in profits last year, the industry is asking their
workers to pay more for healthcare. The National Carriers'
Conference Committee, which represents more than 30
railroad companies in negotiations, has pushed for all
unions to accept the compromises included in the United
Transportation Union's contract earlier this year.
Explaining the decision to accept the contract, UTU
leaders told 40,000 union members in written statements
that, "Historically, rail unions do poorly after rejecting
tentative agreements." The other eleven unions decided to
hold out and fight for a better contract.
On October 3, The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and
Trainmen (BLET), one of the largest rail workers union in
the country (representing 25,000 workers) voted to strike
on October 7 if the NCCC did not withdrawal its demands
for a concessionary contract. They were joined in their
calls for a strike by the Brotherhood of Railway
Signalmen; several other unions are considering joining
their call for a strike.
"It is unfortunate that, in this time of record industry
profits, the carriers insist upon attempting to take
advantage of a weakened general economy to further line
its corporate pockets at the expense of the railroad
workers whose labor generates those profits," BLET
National President Dennis Pierce said. "And it is shameful
that the carriers have chosen to specifically target those
railroad workers who are most vulnerable -- older workers
and the sick and injured -- to shoulder a disproportionate
share of the demanded givebacks."
A NCCC statement says that the unions rejected a wage
increase of 17 percent over 6 years. Unions have said that
the offer really represented a 14-percent wage increase
and that despite "record profitability" for the railroads,
the proposed wage increase is lower than that won during
negotiations for the current five-year contract.
Last Thursday, Obama stepped in to prevent the strike
under the powers granted to the president under the
Railway Labor Act, which governs labor relations in the
railway and airline industry. It was the first time a
president stepped in to avoid a private sector strike
since President George W. Bush prevented a strike at
Amtrak in 2007.
Obama also formed a Presidential Emergency Board comprised
of five members that will have 30 days to recommend a
contract. After an additional 30-day cooling-off period,
the unions would be allowed to strike if they cannot agree
to a contract. However, the Railway Labor Act allows
Congress to step in and impose a contract on the workers
unilaterally. The last time railroad workers went on
strike in 1991, the strike lasted 14 hours before Congress
passed a bill and the president created a board to
unilaterally impose a concessionary contract on railroad
Jonathan Flanders, an IAM union member and railroad
machinist in a CSX locomotive shop in New York, says that
if Obama ultimately signs a bill unilaterally imposing a
concessionary contract on railroad workers, "It would be
more evidence of who Obama serves. If banks disrupt
commerce, they get a bailout. If workers disrupt commerce,
it's another story. We get forced to work under a contract
we wouldn't agree to otherwise."
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