By Justin Franz
WASHINGTON — A decision made by federal mediators this week trying to find common ground between the nation’s leading railroad unions and six Class I railroads could set the stage for a nationwide strike within three months.
On Tuesday, the National Mediation Board set into motion what Railway Age called a “ticking time bomb” when it announced that mediated talks between the Coordinated Bargaining Coalition (which represents the unions) and the National Carriers Conference Committee (which represents all five U.S. Class Is, plus Canadian National’s U.S. operations) had fallen apart and should go to arbitration. Under the Railway Labor Act — the 96-year-old law that oversees railroad labor relations — a third-party arbitrator comes in and comes up with a solution both sides have to agree to. However, either side can reject arbitration, setting the stage for the President of the United States to appoint an emergency board to help resolve the disagreements.
If an emergency board fails, the unions would be able to go on strike. That would usually result in Congress getting involved.
Thirty-day “cooling off” periods are inserted in between each step of the process, meaning the soonest the unions could go on strike would be three months from now in September.
On Tuesday night, the unions said they planned on rejecting the arbitration offer, perhaps hoping that a labor-friendly President Joe Biden might appoint an emergency board agreeable to their side.
“After three years of needless stalling from rail carriers, the National Mediation Board has found that a voluntary agreement is simply not possible,” said TCU/IAM National President Arthur Maratea. “We look forward to continuing to advocate forcefully for our membership in this new stage of negotiations.”
The National Carriers Conference Committee had yet to make a statement on Tuesday night.
The threat of a nationwide strike in just three months comes as the Class Is are already struggling to get their service back to pre-pandemic levels.