On Sept. 28, the IBEW’s Railroad Branch freight members voted to ratify a historic tentative collective bargaining agreement with the nation’s largest freight rail carriers, reaching an important milestone in a lengthy and contentious process that, toward the end of it, saw President Joe Biden taking a personal interest in moving the bargaining parties closer to a deal.
“After nearly three years of bargaining between the nation’s largest freight rail carriers and the union workers indispensable to their operation, we finally reached a national agreement that achieves more than 70% of what we were asking for,” International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said.
Chief among the victories in this tentative agreement is the biggest wage increases in 47 years: a 24% general compounded wage increase — retroactive to July 1, 2020 — over the next five years plus an annual $1,000 service recognition bonus.
Nearly 4,000 IBEW members in the union’s Railroad Branch work for the large Class I freight railroads covered under this agreement, which bargained as a group as the National Carriers’ Conference Committee. The IBEW and the other railroad unions, representing about 115,000 workers, bargained collectively as well.
Nearly a third of U.S. freight moves by rail, and much of Amtrak’s passenger service runs on tracks that are under freight carriers’ jurisdiction. Talks toward an updated rail contract began in 2019 when the IBEW filed its Section Six notice to the NCCC on Dec. 12. But as months turned to years with almost no progress toward a voluntary agreement, the IBEW and its sister organizations in the coalition turned to the National Mediation Board for help. However, throughout a series of mediation sessions in May and June, the carriers continued their refusal to make or accept any worthwhile settlement offers.
With an ongoing deadlock threatening the critical movement of goods on the nation’s rails, President Biden on July 18 used his ability under the Railway Labor Act to appoint a Presidential Emergency Board, empowered to recommend ways to settle disputes like these between the railroad companies and their workers.
On Aug. 16, the board reported its recommendations, which included among other things substantial pay raises and an additional annual paid day off. And during a 30-day cooling off period following the PEB report’s release, the IBEW on Sept. 1 announced that it had reached a tentative agreement with the NCCC that included the Board’s recommendations.
“The freight rail industry is crucial to our economy, and the men and women who keep it moving deserve a fair deal,” said Stephenson, acknowledging the hard work of the IBEW’s rail bargaining team as well as the efforts of President Biden and the members of the PEB to bring labor and management together. “We didn’t win everything we wanted, but this agreement is a step in the right direction.”
But as negotiations with the other unions continued, on Sept. 14 — the day before the cooling-off period’s deadline — Biden directed Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh to get the parties in a room at the department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., to hammer out an acceptable agreement.
The following morning, after an all-night, 20-hour negotiations session, the White House announced that a tentative agreement between the unions and the carriers had at last been reached.
Stephenson thanked the Railroad Department’s negotiating team, led by Director Al Russo, as well as Railroad Branch International Representative J.J. Giuliano and the general chairmen of the union’s railroad system councils: Jim Wisniski, SC-2; Tom Owens, SC-6; Arthur Davidson, SC-7; and Jeff Allred, SC-16.
Stephenson also gave credit to the solidarity of the IBEW’s members, the intervention of the Biden administration and the president’s personal advocacy for union workers during negotiations.
“Their leadership is further proof of what we at the IBEW have long believed: that workers and employers can solve problems both large and small when they come together to bargain in good faith,” Stephenson said. “And this president, when faced with an impossible choice and a potentially crippling rail strike, delivered for union families just as he has over and over in his nearly two years in office through legislation and executive action.”
“During the early dark uncertain days of the pandemic, [rail workers] showed up so every American could keep going,” said Biden from the White House Rose Garden on Sept. 16. “They worked tirelessly through the pandemic to ensure families and communities got the deliveries they needed during these difficult few years. This agreement is validation of what I have always believed: unions and management can work together for the benefit of everyone.”
In addition, the tentative agreement ensures no design changes to the health and welfare plan while resetting the employee cost of the plan and making several improvements to it, such as increasing the annual maximum for hearing benefits, removing age limits on speech therapy and providing coverage for those with autism spectrum disorder.
“This has been a long uphill battle,” Stephenson said. “Our coalition stood together, holding their ground and never giving in to the carriers’ concessionary bargaining tactics.”
IBEW members’ votes toward the union’s ratification of the tentative agreement were counted at the union’s International Office on Sept. 28. The IBEW was the third to vote to ratify the agreement, with the remaining unions on track to hold their own votes by the end of the year. Each individual union’s members must vote to ratify the tentative updated agreement before it can take effect.