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Sidetracked Negotiations: The Contract for Nearly 10,000 Unionized Amtrak Employees Expired on Dec. 31, 1999. Since Then, Talks Have Failed to Make Much Headway

May 13, 2007

By Jane M. Von Bergen, The Philadelphia Inquirer

May 13–Amtrak and its union locomotive mechanics, signal repairmen, track-maintenance crews, conductors and engineers have to be setting some kind of organized-labor record.

Nearly 10,000 unionized Amtrak employees have been working under a contract extension for more than seven years — since their last collective-bargaining agreement expired Dec. 31, 1999.

“It’s a record in my lifetime,” said Thomas Roth, a labor economist who has consulted with transit unions for 30 years. “I haven’t seen it — not in any industry, not in transit, not in freight railroad, not in airlines.”

An additional 5,000 or so Amtrak workers, including food servers, reservation clerks and station cleaners, have been on a contract extension for a mere 28 months, since Dec. 31, 2004.

To say that negotiations are moving at a snail’s pace might be an exaggeration, but not much. Union officials count their meetings with Amtrak negotiators over the last two years on one hand, and most have not seen their federal mediator for more than 12 months.

“Not to be negative . . . but seven years. . . . It’s a little disheartening,” said Brian Bogarde, a union track-repair worker from Morrisville, Bucks County, on a break from resurfacing track near the North Philadelphia train station last week.

“It just seems to be going nowhere,” he said.

But — and here’s what’s unusual — that might be a good thing for labor and Amtrak.

Why? It has to do with the confluence of three forces — the declining ability of workers to negotiate generous contracts, particularly for health care, the general antilabor bent of the Bush administration, and the complex vagaries of the Railway Labor Act, the federal law that governs railroad and airline negotiations.

Amtrak officials declined to comment on negotiations except to say, through spokesman Clifford Black: “We’re hopeful that we can reach agreements that are beneficial to Amtrak.” The National Mediation Board also had no comment.

One complication is the Railway Labor Act, enacted in 1926 with the prime economic goal of keeping commerce moving by keeping trains on track.

The long and cumbersome bargaining process called for by the act begins with negotiations overseen by a mediator. If the talks reach an impasse, the mediator can release the two sides from bargaining, leaving them free to strike or impose a contract or lockout, unless they choose binding arbitration.

(One quaint aspect of the act is that, in it, a strike or lockout is known as “self-help.”)

Usually, before a strike or lockout, the president appoints an emergency board. The board investigates for 30 days and issues recommendations.

Those recommendations can be rejected, but often lead to a settlement. If not, Congress can impose a solution, or the sides can resort to “self-help.”

To encourage bargaining and discourage strikes, the act provides a modest wage increase — half of the cost of living — during negotiations. Some track-repair workers, for example, have seen a $1.61-an-hour raise over seven years.

In those years, Amtrak has been able to operate with nearly flat wage increases. Meanwhile, the unions have kept health benefits, negotiated in 1997, that look generous by today’s standards.

The current contracts limit Amtrak’s ability to hire nonunion workers. Amtrak wants complete latitude to change that and won’t budge. That stance is part of management’s strategy to keep wages low by stalling the talks, union leaders say. Amtrak would not comment.

Meanwhile, the 13 unions in mediation limbo are not in agreement on the best strategy for moving ahead.

“Our members might like a strike, for a show of solidarity,” said George Davidson, vice chairman of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, the Teamster-affiliated union that represents 1,559 track-maintenance workers — one of the largest unions.

But that is not practical, said his boss, Jed Dodd, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees. Dodd would like to move out of mediation and into binding arbitration, avoiding a presidential emergency board.

“We’re looking for a fair shake, and we couldn’t get a fair shake from a presidential emergency board under this president,” Dodd said.

The International Association of Machinists, which represents 487 mechanics who fix locomotives and repair trains, thinks it is worth the risk.

“Seven years, that’s ridiculous . . . how long before there’s an absolute revolt?” said machinists’ spokesman Joseph Tiberi.

The machinists are willing to gamble that even a presidential emergency board appointed by President Bush would find in favor of the employees. If not, the union still could strike, Tiberi said.

The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalman also is willing to gamble.

Earlier this year, a presidential emergency board appointed to oversee a contract between workers and Metro North, a suburban New York commuter system, made reasonable recommendations, said David Ingersoll, general chairman of the signalmen’s union.

Those recommendations could provide a pattern in an industry with a long history of pattern bargaining, he said.

A presidential emergency board also could follow the pattern set by a new contract between union workers and freight lines, which went to the same unions for ratification just last week — or it could follow the pattern in contracts signed by some of Amtrak’s unions earlier in the decade, said Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney partner Robert S. Hawkins, who represents railroad companies in labor negotiations. Those contracts, which were less favorable for workers, have since expired.

Absent any movement at the bargaining table, the unions are agitating to keep up workers’ spirits and to set the stage for a change in the White House in 2008, while moving a Democratic Congress to action.

On March 14, 38 signalmen picketed outside an Amtrak board of directors’ meeting in New York. They later were threatened with discipline for taking off from work, though Ingersoll said they had done so in accordance with Amtrak policies.

On May 5, Dodd led a group on a leafletting tour of the upscale Washington neighborhood where Amtrak CEO Frank Kummant lives.

On Thursday, workers from Amtrak unions will rally in front of Washington’s Union Station before heading to a bigger noontime rally on Capitol Hill.

“Part of the problem,” Tiberi said, “is that Amtrak has to beg for funding.”

In fiscal 2006, the White House suggested giving Amtrak no funding. For fiscal 2008, Bush has proposed $900 million, far short of the $1.5 billion Amtrak seeks. A bill sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) would provide for enhanced funding, although not enough, Tiberi said, to cover adequate contracts for the workers.

The irony is that railroads are faring well. Freight traffic is up. The freight-management coalition predicts railroads will hire 80,000 workers in the next five years.

Amtrak’s business also has picked up.

Ticket revenues increased 11 percent, to $840 million, in the seven months between October and April. Ridership rose 5 percent, to 14.32 million, Black said.

Operating losses have been narrowing, and Amtrak has been paying down its debt, but the railroad is still $3.4 billion in the red, Black said.

Out on the tracks in North Philadelphia, an Amtrak resurfacing crew took a forced break late Tuesday afternoon while it waited for the crew ahead to finish its work. These crews move along Amtrak’s East Coast corridor from Washington to Boston for four-day stints, staying in motels. Last week, the workers doubled up in a hotel in Bensalem, getting three meals on a $29 per diem meal allowance.

Amtrak’s Acela trains roar by at top speed, and SEPTA commuter trains move through at a good clip. It’s a job where one minute’s inattention can mean death and almost everyone knows someone who was either hurt or killed on the job.

The crews work in all weather. Most on the crew in North Philadelphia were circling 50.

“I do like my job,” said Jerome Longmire, 60, of Baltimore, who earns $17.91 an hour as a laborer, one of the lowest classifications. “I like the traveling and I like the work I do. I like being outside. It’s not as confining as a factory. I like my coworkers. We’ve been working together for years.”

Longmire knows workers like him could earn more with the freight lines, but like the union, he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. He’s got 27 years in — three more to go before he can retire with a pension. If he left, he’d have to start over.

“Maybe if I was 16 or 20 years younger. . .,” he mused, as a train roared past. “The cost of living goes up. Union dues go up. Everything goes up but our pay.”

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Amtrak and Its Many Unions

Amtrak has 24 labor agreements with 14 separate unions representing a total of 15,742 workers.

Union Number of employees

Transportation Communications International Union 4,378

United Transportation Union 1,914

Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees 1,559

Transport Workers Union 1,467

Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers 1,215

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 1,060

Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen 551

International Association of Machinist

and Aerospace Workers 487

Hotel, Restaurant & Dining Car Employees 479

Sheet Metal Workers International Association 421

Fraternal Order of Police 307

National Conference of Firemen and Oilers 262

American Train Dispatchers Association 158

International Brotherhood of Boilermakers

and Blacksmiths 66

SOURCE: Amtrak, as of February 2007.

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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