Rail-Maintenance Union Plans Talks Beyond End of Strike Ban

A union representing about 19 percent of U.S. workers in contract negotiations with freight railroads said it will continue talks at least through February, two months after a ban on strikes will be lifted.

“We have no intention of striking” on Dec. 6, said Fred Simpson, president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, which represents workers who build and maintain tracks and other structures. “We sent all the railroads a letter saying, ‘We’re not going to strike, we’d like to bargain until Feb. 10 to see if we can get something done.’”

Labor unions for more than half of the 132,000 negotiating workers have reached tentative agreements that implement the recommendations of a board appointed by President Barack Obama to review a two-year stalemate between workers and railroads. Unions that don’t reach agreements may begin strikes on Dec. 6, and the railroads can lock them out.

The board proposals this month were intended to prevent a walkout that the Association of American Railroads said would cost the U.S. economy as much as $2 billion a day.

The National Carriers’ Conference Committee, the industry’s bargaining group, said late yesterday that railroads would join the maintenance workers in extending talks provided that the American Train Dispatchers Association and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen match the BMWE pledge.

Holiday Shipping

“It is critical to the national interest to make every reasonable effort to avoid the threatened service disruption during the busy holiday shipping season,” committee Chairman A. Kenneth Gradia said in a statement.

Unions for the maintenance workers, engineers and dispatchers together account for about 40 percent of the employees currently bargaining. The carriers’ group represents more than 30 railroads, including Union Pacific Corp. and Warren Buffett’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

The president of the engineers’ union, Dennis Pierce, declined to comment yesterday on details of his group’s negotiations. A telephone message left today, a U.S. holiday, with the dispatchers union wasn’t immediately returned.

A sticking point for the BMWE is increasing railroads’ coverage of worker travel expenses. The union will accept the Presidential Emergency Board’s recommendations on wages and health care, Simpson said in a telephone interview.

Meal, Lodging

The board relegated the so-called away-from-home expenses settlement to local handling, however, and the railroads have said they will agree to nothing except what the PEB recommended, Simpson told union members in a letter earlier this month. That is “unacceptable” to the BMWE, he said.

The companies’ coverage of meal and lodging expenses hasn’t increased since 2005, and their payments for weekend travel have been the same since 1996, Simpson said.

The president’s board proposed “quite substantial” pay increases while choosing not to recommend an increase in travel-related expenses, said Joanna Moorhead, a spokeswoman for the industry’s National Railway Labor Conference.

“The other rail unions that have settled following the PEB recommendations have all adopted those recommendations as the basis,” Moorhead said. “And we certainly believe that the BMWE should adopt those recommendations as well.”

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