|ONLINE VERSION||APRIL 2001|
Our New Agreement — A Hard But Necessary Choice
Last month I wrote you regarding the political environment under which railroad and airline workers must negotiate in order to reach collective bargaining agreements. I described that we are not free to simply strike when our contracts expire. Instead we are under the jurisdiction of a federal agency called the National Mediation Board.
The National Mediation Board generally functions as a biased, anti-labor agency, working to provide the railroads with agreements which help the railroads and often injure railroad workers. The Board members, with few exceptions, study what helps the railroads and then make decisions to protract bargaining, unless the railroads want quick contracts. If the major railroads want quick agreements, then the National Mediation Board functions expeditiously.
Many former members of the National Mediation Board, after they leave their positions as NMB Board Members, take lucrative positions with rail and airline management. They generally function, especially in collective bargaining matters, on the basis of petty, personal and political motives instead of honest evaluation of the situation.
When the Democrats are in power, we have a better chance at receiving fair treatment than we have when Republicans are in power. It is not that we get pro-labor treatment when the Democrats are in power. We simply get a better opportunity to obtain a level playing field when the NMB proffers arbitration and the President selects members of Presidential Emergency Boards to do fact finding on our disputes. As the recommendations of Presidential Emergency Boards are usually enacted into law by Congress if either of the parties reject them, these PEBs are critical to our working lives and livelihoods.
This helps explain the differences between Presidential Emergency Boards 219 and 229. PEB 219 devastated our working conditions and provided less than inflationary wage increases. PEB 229 recommended wage increases a little higher than inflation and helped provide BMWE members with a modicum of job protection and improved work rules.
It became clear early on that when George W. Bush was selected President of the United States, he had a marked anti-labor agenda. Whether it was regulations which were enacted to protect workers from injuries or Executive Orders designed to provide fairness to unionized employees when the federal government pays for work to be done, President Bush immediately, and successfully, worked to eliminate those regulations and Orders.
When airline workers threatened strikes, Bush extended the practice of appointing PEBs to the airline industry and promised to use them every time airline workers struck (making the treatment of airline workers in collective bargaining the same as the treatment of railroad workers).
And when he had the opportunity to select members to a Presidential Emergency Board in a dispute between mechanics on Northwest Airlines and Northwest, two of the three members of that Board are the same people his dad selected to be on Presidential Emergency Board 219. The third member of the Northwest Presidential Emergency Board is actually worse towards labor than the third member of PEB 219 was. This only could have occurred with the acquiescence of the National Mediation Board.
Although BMWE had negotiated in good faith and was at impasse in June, 2000, the NMB refused to proffer arbitration. Instead, it protracted bargaining, hoping George W. Bush would become President so that our members would not obtain a fair Presidential Emergency Board. And the NMB got what it wanted.
This put us in a very bad situation. The last time a President Bush appointed a Presidential Emergency Board, it was PEB 219. I lived through that period and have no desire to go through another one.
The railroads were acutely aware of the fact there was a presidential campaign going on when the term of our last agreement ended on December 31, 1999. So they protracted bargaining, knowing the NMB would allow them to do so. At the same time they made outrageous demands – to contract out all of our production work – to make it easier to contract out maintenance and B & B work – to reduce away-from-home expenses – to weaken seniority and to take other liberties with our work rules. They also pushed for paltry wage increases as a result of the poor financial performance they visited on themselves as a result of their mergers. At the same time, health care costs skyrocketed, rising over 30% ($300,000,000) in two years.
Our choice was difficult, but simple. Do we want to put all of our work rules up for grabs before a Bush Presidential Emergency Board – a PEB that would most likely look favorably on the arguments of the railroads? Do we want to also put our wages and health benefits before such a Presidential Emergency Board when the railroads could argue poor financial performance and skyrocketing health care costs? Or should we make an agreement that is extremely modest economically, but protects all of the gains we made under PEB 229? Ultimately there was only one choice – to get as much as we could, protect as much as we could – and make a deal.
Our process is a very democratic process. All systems involved in national bargaining participate in the decision making process. All General Chairmen, System Officers and Grand Lodge Officers and staff work extremely hard to obtain the best agreements possible for our members. A situation like the one we're in is painful to all of us. But it is also clear that we must move with our heads as well as our hearts. Under those circumstances we chose to make an agreement rather than risk another Bush Presidential Emergency Board. It is not a good agreement, but it is in our opinion, much better, even economically, than an agreement whose parameters would be defined by a Bush-appointed Presidential Emergency Board.
Before you even read this, you will have been getting information from the union about the terms of this agreement and your system officers will be at Lodge meetings to explain it and why we made it. It is critical that you read the information and attend the Lodge meetings.
Once that process is complete, you will have the opportunity to ratify or reject the agreement in a secret ballot, mail referendum. You can be certain that if you reject the agreement, the BMWE will not submit it to arbitration so that you get what you voted against. But if you reject the agreement you are giving us a direction that will probably land us in front of a Bush-appointed Presidential Emergency Board. This puts all of our work rules at risk and does not mean you will receive better wages or lower health care costs.
If you choose to risk all in front of a Bush-appointed Presidential Emergency Board by voting to reject this agreement, we will do all in our power to get a better result. But I doubt very strongly that we will end up better before the PEB process, even in wages and health care benefits, than we will if you vote to ratify this agreement. And I believe equally strongly that we will end up much worse if you vote to reject.