Federal judge orders rail union to negotiate on train crew size

A photograph of a man leaning out of the window of a train.

A federal judge has ruled that a rail labor union representing train conductors must start negotiating with the U.S. Class I railroads on the issue of train crew staffing. The parties began their latest round of collective bargaining on Nov. 1, 2019.

Judge Mark T. Pittman of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas ruled on Tuesday that the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, Transportation Division (SMART-TD) must begin bargaining with the railroads on the proposals regarding train consists — the people who move the train — per the Railroad Labor Act (RLA).

The U.S operations of the seven Class I railroads brought the lawsuit before the court last October.

The National Railway Labor Conference (NRLC), a group representing the railroads, said Tuesday’s decision allows the rail industry to discuss train crew staffing and the deployment of train conductors in light of new safety and operational technologies.

“The court ruling allows for serious discussions over all aspects of crew staffing,” said Brendan Branon, chairman of the NRLC and the National Carriers’ Conference Committee, the bargaining representative for the major U.S. freight railroads. “The industry wants to work collaboratively with SMART-TD to shape a future, ground-based role of the conductor, and this ruling brings the parties to the bargaining table to begin those discussions now.”

The union argued during the suit that provisions in the existing labor agreements barred discussion of proposals to reduce train crew size, according to the ruling.

But Pittman ruled that the union was violating the RLA by refusing to bargain “in good faith.”

In his 22-page decision, he acknowledged broader concerns that a reduction in crew size might endanger a train carrying hazardous materials but said the lawsuit wasn’t the proper venue to analyze that.

“While the Court finds this argument compelling, it is ultimately unconvincing at the preliminary injunction stage because the injunctive relief here does not permit an immediate reduction of crew size, but merely compels SMART-TD to begin good-faith negotiating over crew size proposals,” the ruling said.

“Thus, if SMART-TD is correct — and it may be correct — that a reduction in crew consist would cause significant safety issues, any such harm would not occur even if the Court enters injunctive relief in favor of the railroads. Finally, by facilitating bargaining and increasing the chances of settlement, the public is served by the prevention of a strike,” the ruling continued.

SMART-TD said Thursday it had filed an appeal the day before with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

“Unfortunately, this decision comes as no surprise. The court ignored the provisions of the RLA,” SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said. “The judge sided with the carriers on every issue, not even recognizing our arguments or providing any real analysis. It is simply infuriating.”

SMART-TD also said it has sued the National Mediation Board for granting a request by the NRLC to appoint an arbitration board member to oversee arbitration on more than two dozen crew-consist agreements that have been negotiated locally.

The issue of train crew size has been in debate over the past several months, as several state legislatures, the latest being Oklahoma’s, have proposed bills requiring train crews consisting of at least two members, even though the Federal Railroad Administration last May withdrew a notice of proposed rulemaking on establishing train crew sizes, saying state laws that mandated crew sizes have been voided.

The rail industry has said establishing the size of a train crew is a discussion more appropriate for the bargaining table and that technologies such as positive train control will enable rail operations to be even safer. Meanwhile, union leaders have said a train crew size of at least two people enables safer operations, especially as trains become longer.