Rail talks still going nowhere

Amtrak, unions operate under pact that expired in '99

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May 25, 2007|By Jane M. Von Bergen | Jane M. Von Bergen,The Philadelphia Inquirer

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 past 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, Pa.

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 the unions free to strike and amtrak allowed to impose a contract or lockout, unless they choose binding arbitration.

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.

Jed Dodd, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, believes a strike isn't practical. 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 a strike is worth the risk.

"Seven years, that's ridiculous ... how long before there's an absolute revolt?" said Machinists' spokesman Joseph Tiberi.

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.

Meanwhile, workers such as Jerome Longmire, 60, of Baltimore, feel they have little choice but to stick it out. "I do like my job," said Longmire, 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 co-workers. 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 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. "The cost of living goes up. Union dues go up. Everything goes up but our pay."

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