B   M   W   E


Many of you remember the national rail strikes of 1991 and 1992 and the agreement the National Mediation Board, President George Bush and Congress imposed on us against our will. But many of you may not know or remember what led Rail Labor to strike and how we ended up having the recommendations of Presidential Emergency Board 219 imposed on us. As we decide whether to ratify or reject the new tentative agreement, it might be helpful to look back at where we've been.

The 1980s were a bad time for railroad workers in general and BMWE members in particular. A new-style Conservative Republican, Ronald Reagan, had been elected President of the United States and the Staggers Act deregulating the railroad industry was passed early in the decade.

The railroads used the Staggers Act to massively cut jobs throughout the industry, shamelessly shedding thousands upon thousands of miles of track, creating short lines that were thinly disguised creations of the big roads at that time. Railroads would have a dummy operation purchase pieces of the large railroad and use a provision of the Staggers Act to avoid their responsibility to pay New York Dock benefits to railroad workers who lost their jobs as a result of having the portions of the railroad they worked on sold to these new short lines.

While this was going on, the practice of cramdown also was taking place at ever increasing speed. The railroads would use other provisions of the Interstate Commerce Act to merge railroads and abrogate collective bargaining agreements of many of the workers, placing them under the collective bargaining agreement most disadvantageous to the employees and favorable to the railroads.  These provisions of the ICC Act were never used in the past to support cramdown but the Reagan-appointed ICC simply changed the old precedent.

The Staggers Act and the ICC Act it amended were implemented by agencies appointed by Ronald Reagan – including the Interstate Commerce Commission, the predecessor agency to the Surface Transportation Board. The Reagan ICC created the practice of cramdown, reversing a half century of precedent in which collective bargaining agreements were preserved when railroads merged.

The Staggers Act was Congress' attempt to modernize the U.S. railroad industry, which was still reeling from the major changes that occurred in the transportation industry.

In the 1920s and 1930s when the Railway Labor Act was passed, railroads moved 80% to 85% of all intercity freight. The Interstate Highway System was not created until the 1950s and jets were not propelling airliners and air freight carriers until the 1960s. The growth of these two modes of transportation led to a massive decline in the amount of intercity freight the railroads moved and added to the difficulty of operating a railroad profitably. The other major reason railroads also had severe problems operating at a profit was the fact it is an immensely capital intensive industry. While the highways and superhighways are owned by federal and state governments as are the airports and air traffic control systems, railroads must pay for every mile of track they lay and pay property taxes on every mile of track they own as well as for train dispatching.

In the 1920s rail labor backed a movement to put much of the industry under government control in the same manner the trucking and air infrastructures were, but the railroad industry successfully fought against this, as they wanted to retain ownership of the system. So as we entered the 1980s, we saw a deteriorated railroad infrastructure in an industry that was economically deteriorated. This was the background for the Staggers Act, which was designed to make the industry competitive, but not to devastate railroad workers.

But Ronald Reagan and his successor George Bush changed that. They politicized the process by appointing ideologues to the ICC and the National Mediation Board and forever changed the decision making processes involved in collective bargaining from a fair one to one in which the railroads pretty much got what they wanted.

As a result of these right wing Republican policies, the railroads went to war against their employees. Unit labor costs declined massively as the railroads "downsized" and productivity soared. Huge numbers of railroad workers lost their jobs. The National Mediation Board became a conscious tool of the railroads and we saw the introduction of "lump sum" contracts and wage increases that did not go back to the day the moratorium expired and on many railroads did not even meet inflation.

All this was the result of the conscious decisions of the National Mediation Board to refuse to "proffer arbitration" when a deadlock was reached, in effect forcing unions to take inferior agreements or wait forever for any kind of wage increase at all.

Additionally, Reagan and Bush appointed judges who reinterpreted the Railway Labor Act, making it nearly impossible to strike when the railroads unilaterally abrogated collective bargaining agreements and the right wing drift of these Administrations was reflected in the recommendations of Presidential Emergency Boards. Even in those instances when there was a proffer of arbitration in the railroad industry, Congress would intervene to end strikes on the basis of the political recommendations of these Presidential Emergency Boards.

Although rail labor fought back, we were defeated at every turn. The ICC simply gave the railroads the right to create sham short lines and kept expanding cramdown. Members of the Interstate Commerce Commission and the National Mediation Board, after serving the railroads and airlines when they were public servants, took lucrative jobs within and for the rail and air industries. Even Congressmen, after drafting legislation to end our strikes, took lucrative positions with the railroads. The tune was being played by the conservative Republican political leadership and the full weight of the government came down on railroad workers like a ton of bricks – in the Courts – at the Executive agencies – and even in the Congress of the United States.

The BMWE suffered in the same manner that all of rail labor suffered and as the Labor Movement as a whole suffered under Reagan and Bush. And the relentless drive of the railroads went on unabated. The railroads decided to go after our work rules, attempting to expand our seniority districts and loosen other work rules. PEB 211, the Reagan-appointed PEB that resolved the 1984 round of bargaining warned the BMWE that if we did not make concessions on our work rules, a future PEB would do so. That PEB recommended small wage increases and kept the work rules intact.

This was the setting for the 1988 round of bargaining – the bargaining round which culminated in PEB 219, the national rail strike of 1991, the IAM local strike against CSX resulting from IAM national bargaining that led to the national lockout of 1992 and the imposition of the politically inspired, anti-labor recommendations of PEB 219.

Despite two strikes and court actions, all of rail labor suffered from imposition of the recommendations of PEB 219, but the BMWE suffered even worse. We received below inflation wage increases, a restructuring of our health care plan with an element of cost sharing included and the absolute savaging of our work rules – expanded seniority districts, regional and system gangs, worksite reporting, alternate work week and starting time – in short massive productivity enhancements for the railroads at less than inflation costs.

We all watched in shock as the supposedly fair government of the United States came together for the express purpose of aiding the railroad industry at labor's expense. In short, the comeback of the rail industry after the 1980s was almost wholly the result of labor concessions forced by the policies of the Reagan and Bush Administrations, the control of the National Mediation Board and the Interstate Commerce Commission by right wing, anti- labor Republicans who took positions with the industry after serving them while on those agencies, the political, anti-labor decisions of Reagan and Bush appointed judges who ignored the law in order to assist business, and the anti-labor actions of the Congress of the United States.

The railroad industry demonstrated little competence as management; they just savaged their work force. In 1980 there were 458,000 organized workers on the Class 1 railroads. By 1994 there were only about 200,000. And those 200,000 were working for less actual dollars than they were working for in 1980 under deteriorated work rules.

Although the Democrats and Republicans in Congress united to force us back to work and impose the recommendations of PEB 219 on us, generally when the Democrats are in power, more consideration is given to providing at least a fair hearing by the various agencies. As a result, despite recalcitrance by one of the members of the Clinton PEB, BMWE was able to get a fair hearing and a fair contract in the 1995 round of bargaining that led to the recommendations of PEB 229.

Although we did not make up for the devastating results of PEB 219, we came back some of the way. However,  the NMB this time made personal and political decisions to deny us a proffer of arbitration even though we had bargained to impasse by June, 2000.  We did not want to risk another PEB appointed by a conservative Republican, especially with the demands the railroads had on the table to savage our work rules – contracting out our production work and increasing contracting out of maintenance work – reducing away from home expenses – placing our maintenance forces under the same kinds of rules our production gangs are under – weakening our job protection agreement – just to name a few.

No, we have been at this point before – when Labor talks big, fights but lacks the clout to win. We believe we know what is going on and where this is going – small wage increases, especially given the UTU tentative settlement and high health care costs given the meteoric rise in those costs– but also a direct attack on our work rules.

The history is clear and this battle has already been fought. We remember the lessons of PEB 219 and the climate under which it happened, and we see the same climate now. Rather than repeat those errors and have the probability of our members suffering with no other option offered to them, we chose instead to make a tentative agreement and save what was gained in the last round of bargaining. If the members choose to reject that agreement, at least they have chosen to take the risks associated with going to a Bush-appointed PEB and negotiating agreements under the Railway Labor Act with a Conservative Republican as President. Those risks are immense – much worse that what we settled for.

    Return to Front Page
  Return to BMWE Web Site