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By Pat Foran, Editor
Will all 12 rail labor unions ratify the tentative agreement they reached with the major U.S. freight railroads in September? The question was blowing in the wind as this issue went to press.
While six of the unions had voted to ratify the pact, two — the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division of the IBT and the Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen (BRS) — last month voted to reject it, raising concerns that others might follow.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and SMART Transportation Division later this month will finish voting on the pact, which followed the recommendations of a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB). Many eyes will be fixed on the outcome of those votes since those organizations are the rail industry’s two largest unions.
The National Carriers’ Conference Committee, which represents more than 30 freight railroads in collective bargaining, and the BRS have agreed to maintain the status quo period until early December.
Meanwhile, a coalition of hundreds of business groups signed an Oct. 27 letter asking President Joe Biden to help keep railroads and the unions at the bargaining table to prevent a strike.
In an Oct. 27 email to his clients, transportation analyst Tony Hatch wasn’t fretting over that possibility.
“The whole rail world seems to have joined the Panic at the Disco,” he wrote. “But, folks — the prevention or quick ending of a rail strike isn’t to protect railroads, or their workers — but everyone else impacted by it.” As in a range from commuters to auto workers to farmers.
Hatch maintained “the PEB framework is the model we’ll see,” the one “from which Congress will draw, if need be …”
Maybe it’s just the wind, or my proximity to the Disco, but the “if need be” refrain’s audible. We’ll keep listening … and fix an eye on the weathervane.
Watco’s Rick Webb, winner of our 2022 Railroad Innovator Award, is as thoughtful and genuine as anyone I’ve interviewed in my 25 years covering this industry. In a late-summer conversation, Webb shared a few thoughts on innovation I couldn’t sneak into this month’s cover story. Here are a couple of them:
• “There’s not a lot of change in the assets in this industry, so the innovation has to come from how people better utilize the assets to create value. If you get the right people — people who are never satisfied with the status quo, people you support and trust — they will innovate for you. You just have to be comfortable enough to let them.”
• “This will be difficult to get to, from a collective bargaining standpoint, but I believe it will happen in 10 or 20 years, at most: The long-haul rail network should be autonomous. With the last mile and first mile, you still have to have some sort of manual interface. But there’s no better network to move to complete autonomous technology than a closed rail network. Think about the trucks you could take off the highway. But we need to embrace it in the right way with our unions. We don’t want to harm unions at all.”