IBEW railroad branch members covered under the U.S. National Freight Agreement ratified the proposed 2015-2019 contract in May, International President Lonnie Stephenson announced, and arbitration is set to resolve the few remaining issues.

An IBEW railroad branch member services a headlamp on a BNSF locomotive.

Last December, the IBEW reached a tentative agreement with the National Carriers Conference Committee (NCCC), the freight railroads’ bargaining group. The May 8 ratification, by a vote of 1,929 to 1,560, followed the agreement’s initial, narrow rejection in February.

“After that February vote, we immediately engaged the railroads in an attempt to obtain something better for our members,” said IBEW Railroad Department Director William Bohné, “and we resumed negotiations with the NCCC.”

IBEW’s negotiators told the railroads that the union still was not pleased with the proposed agreement, especially in light of the companies’ continued streak of record profits. “We wanted to see improvements for our members in the areas of wages, health-and-welfare benefits, vacations, and sick days,” Bohné said, adding that there were concerns that the railroads might try to extract further, unacceptable concessions during negotiations.

“They responded that they were not willing to offer us anything more than what the other organizations, including four of the six unions in our coalition, had already accepted,” he said, “and that — whether we like it or not — a pattern had been established, since 90 percent of their agreement workforce had already accepted the contract.

“Our experience and history tell us that these patterns are difficult, if not impossible, to break,” Bohné said.

During the negotiations, the IBEW’s team sought help from the National Mediation Board. “We made a strong case to them,” Bohné said, “while reminding the board about the record profits that the railroads continue to make.” But the board members exhibited little sympathy, he said, essentially repeating the railroads’ line about the established pattern.

Bohné and members of the negotiating committee also visited the IBEW’s railroad locals around the country, answering members’ questions about the proposed contract and explaining why voting to ratify the agreement was, under current circumstances, the recommended option. Hitting the road with Bohné were International Representatives Jeff Burk and Al Russo, along with Railroad System Council General Chairmen Jim Wisniski (Council 2), Tom Owens (Council 6), J.J. Giuliano (Council 9), Dale Doyle (Council 16), and many of their assistants.

Touring the country and meeting directly with railroad branch members, the IBEW’s team also was mindful of the disappointingly low turnout for the initial ratification vote, where only about 20 percent of railroad branch members voted to reject the agreement. At the time, the union was considering whether to resume mediation or to petition the NMB for a release from the mediation process.

“We were in a difficult situation,” Bohné said. Had the board agreed to a release, it would have offered binding arbitration and granted the parties a 10-day window to consider the offer. A rejection either from IBEW or the NCCC would then trigger a 30-day cooling-off period, at the end of which rail members could strike while the railroads would be free to impose new wages and working conditions.

But within that cooling-off, President Donald Trump would have the ability to appoint a presidential emergency board (PEB), which has 30 to 60 days to hold hearings and investigate disputes, and ultimately to make recommendations for a new contract. At that point, a strike can be called, the railroads can impose new terms and conditions, or — most likely — Congress can step in and pass a law that becomes our new contract, typically under PEB-recommended terms.

With all of this in mind, the negotiating committee, with the support of IBEW International President Lonnie Stephenson, insisted that railroad local presidents should have the final say on whether the tentative agreement should be resubmitted to branch members for a vote. An early April poll indicated the presidents’ overwhelming support for doing so.

Following much deliberation — taking into account the likelihood of a PEB, the current anti-labor climate on Capitol Hill, and the uphill “established pattern” battle the union faced, Bohné said, the negotiating committee put the agreement back out for what would be its eventual ratification.

“I personally know how passionate committee members were about obtaining something better for members,” he said, “how hard they worked, and how frustrated they are that, in this round, that possibility had all but disappeared.”

But ratification, unfortunately, was not the end of the story. One final hurdle remains: a July 10 arbitration hearing regarding what’s called a “true-up.”

“Our contract was ratified on May 8,” Bohné said, “so the railroad companies are insisting that that their national health plan needs a ‘true-up’ to recoup money that they claim the plan lost because our members’ plan was implemented four months after the plans that cover 90 percent of the rest of the unionized railroad workforce.”

For the negotiating committee, a true-up was unacceptable. We could not agree to this, Bohné said, so the parties agreed to send the issue to arbitration.

Complicating matters further, the railroads have indicated that no retroactive pay will be issued until after an arbitration award comes down on the “true-up” case, again pressing the idea that deducting a “true-up” from retroactive pay in this manner is how it has been handled with other unions.

“We told the railroads that we aren’t interested in what other unions have done — the IBEW hasn’t agreed to it,” Bohné said. “We have been strenuously arguing that there is no provision for them to forestall retroactive payments, and we will continue to fight to have the retroactivepay paid in a timely manner.”

The agreement, he said, states that retroactive payments are in fact due within 60 days of its effective date — that is, July 7. Waiting for the arbitration adds a burdensome delay.

“This ‘true-up’ is just corporate greed,” Bohné said. “We made every attempt to have the railroads back off this demand — even interrupting a private meeting of their labor relations vice presidents to make our final plea.”

The IBEW has retained a top rail labor law firm to handle the arbitration case on our behalf, and a decision will be rendered within seven days of the July 10 hearing.

If the IBEW wins the arbitration, nothing will be deducted from members’ pay.

If the companies prevail, and the retroactive pay has already been paid by then, Bohné recommended that railroad branch members who are covered by the new national rail agreement should be ready to have the “true-up” amount — almost $300 — deducted from the first paycheck following the arbitration decision, not to mention taxes, something that is governed by Internal Revenue Service regulations and may be handled differently from one railroad to the next.

The agreement, covering all IBEW members working on railroads involved in national bargaining, is retroactive, effective Jan. 1, 2015, through Dec. 31, 2019, with general wage increases through 2019.

Visit ibew.org/railroad to learn more about the new agreement.