Railworkers should take the win
By Michael Carrube
New York Daily News
Oct 12, 2022 at 5:00 am
Labor unions are in the midst of a major comeback in the U.S. Workers at companies like Starbucks, Apple and Amazon are voting to form unions. Here in New York, I was proud to help lead public sector labor’s comeback by forming the National Association of Transportation Supervisors in 2015, the first international union in the nation representing transit supervisors and managers.
A recent Gallup poll shows that these are not just isolated developments.The survey found that 71% of Americans support labor unions. That marks the highest level of support for unions since 1965.
This is good news for American workers. Studies show that unions lead to higher wages and better benefits for workers. A great example of this is the recent labor negotiations between freight railroads and the multiple labor unions that represent their workers. Ratifying these tentative agreements is critical and the best choice by rail workers.
After lengthy negotiations failed to produce a deal, President Biden issued an executive order in July to create a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) of neutral arbitrators. In August, the arbitrators released their recommendations for the framework of a deal between the railroads and unions.
The arbitrators recommended 24% wage increases during the five-year period from 2020 through 2024, with a 14.1% increase effective immediately. For a rail worker making $100,000 a year, the deal would mean an immediate raise of $14,100, and an increase of $24,000 over five years.
In addition, the agreements also include five $1,000 annual lump sum payments, adjustments to health care premiums and health benefit enhancements for all employees. A portion of the wage increases and lump sum payments are retroactive, resulting in more than $11,000 on average in immediate payouts to employees.
The wage increases in the new agreements are the most substantial in decades — with average rail worker wages reaching about $110,000 per year by the end of the agreement. When health care, retirement and other benefits are considered, the value of rail employees’ total compensation package, which already ranks among the highest in the nation, would average about $160,000 per year.
While the framework represented a big win for freight rail workers, many were unhappy that the PEB didn’t address the numerous quality-of-life issues they face. This raised the possibility of a massive rail labor strike that could have a devastating impact on America’s economy.
Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh led a team to get both sides in a room and hammer out their differences. After days of tense negotiations, strong union leadership, along with White House support, prevailed in winning further concessions from the railroads. These concessions include three unpaid leave days a year for medical appointments, as well as a promise from the railroads not to dock workers for health matters. In addition, the railroads pledged further negotiations to ensure workers have enough paid time off.
The salary increases, improvements to health benefits and concessions on paid time off represent important wins for workers and serve as an example of how important strong union leadership is to its members. Surely other industries are taking note.
Because the deal is still a compromise, frustrations among workers are understandable. The past few years have been especially tough for rail workers, who worked through COVID while white-collar workers sat on Zoom.
Nonetheless, choosing a strike over ratifying the temporary agreement would be a short-sighted miscalculation. In the event of a rail strike, Congress would have the power to step in and impose a labor deal on workers. The best-case scenario would be lawmakers forcing workers to accept the original recommended terms, without the additional quality-of-life concessions won by labor leaders.
Leaving important wins on the table would bean unforced error that would hurt freight rail workers and potentially weaken union power in general. If workers turn their backs on a deal the administration put so much political capital into mediating, it could make the political leaders less likely to intervene in future negotiations.
Some workers are already showing they understand the benefits of accepting the deal. Last month, the InternationalBrotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) voted to ratify the tentative agreement.
Unfortunately, not all unions are taking this approach. On Monday, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE) voted against ratification of the deal.
The remaining unions would be smart to follow IBEW’s lead. Take the wins now and build upon this victory. Momentum for labor unions continues to gain steam. Freight rail workers have an opportunity to keep that momentum going by embracing what they gained at the bargaining table.
Carrube is president of the National Association of Transportation Supervisors, as well as the Subway-Surface SupervisorsAssociation.