We must make rail safety act work

May 4, 2009

By International President Mike Futhey

Compromise is the art of successful negotiations. But when one party goes to the negotiating table unwilling to compromise, the results can be unpleasant for both, and produce a result that might not be the best choice.

Such was the case with the Rail Safety Improvement Act passed by Congress last fall.

Repeatedly, rail labor told the carriers that if we don’t jointly reach a negotiated agreement on employee fatigue, limbo time, availability policies and arbitrary discipline, that a major rail accident would force Congress to write legislation that neither the carriers nor labor would like.

The UTU and the other rail unions, whose members are subject to hours-of-service regulations, had three objectives:

  1. An end to limbo time, with a short phase-out period.
  2. Advance notice of start times, or a minimum of a 10-hour call.
  3. An end to arbitrary discipline tied to unreasonable availability policies.

The carriers refused to accept rail labor’s objectives. So, when a series of severe and headline-grabbing rail accidents occurred, it became clear that Congress was going to act on its own.

The fatigue mitigation piece of the Rail Safety Improvement Act had been on Congress’s agenda for 15 years. The fatal accident in Chatsworth, Calif., involving a commuter train, was the ice breaker.

Rail labor’s position was consistent throughout the process.

The result was not all that rail labor or the carriers wanted in a rail safety bill. The 10-hour call principle was included only as a pilot project, and 10 hours of rest between each shift was mandated.

Had the carriers negotiated with us in good faith, the result could have been a joint recommendation to Congress that maximum flexibility be afforded carriers and rail labor to craft solutions based on the reality of local situations.

The best legislation always starts with an agreement in principle with the involved parties, but the railroads would not agree to any change in the application of unlimited limbo time, to accurate lineups, or an absenteeism policy that would force safety-critical employees to work when they were fatigued.

Instead, lawmakers took the one-size-fits-all approach because of the railroads’ refusal to discuss fatigue solutions.

We are now working to find local flexibility options to fine-tune the principles contained in the Rail Safety Improvement Act.

We are not optimistic that this can be achieved in so short a time frame, even though the carriers similarly want more flexibility in the law.

What we may be able to achieve is permission from the FRA for an FRA-monitored pilot project that permits flexible approaches instead of one-size-fits-all regulations.

The UTU and other rail operating unions are committed to do everything in their power to achieve more flexible regulations that recognize that situations are not equivalent across all railroads, all operating districts or all rail yards.

We will keep you informed.