‘Could have gone either way’: Railroad union deal barely survived

“Steering clear of disaster required some 20 straight hours of talks beginning Wednesday that taxed Labor Department coffee supplies, kept West Wing office lights burning through the early hours and left everyone involved bleary-eyed and largely sleepless.”

What a rail strike could mean for you (and the economy)

“Tens of thousands of freight rail workers are prepared to go on strike on Friday at 12:01 am, which could have wide-ranging effects across the economy. It’s already causing some disruptions for rail passengers, freight companies, and others.

The cause is a dispute between the freight industry and the workers who make it run.

Most of the 12 unions representing the workers have already agreed to a proposal put together by a presidential emergency board established by the White House over the summer to try to help resolve the dispute. The proposal includes a 24 percent increase in wages for workers by 2024, but many workers have complained that it fails to address leave, on-call scheduling, and poor working conditions.

The holdout unions’ position is that pay increases aren’t enough to make up for some real downsides — and dangerous aspects — of the job.

The two most powerful unions involved in the negotiations, which represent engineers and conductors, are continuing to resist the proposal, putting both sides in a deadlock. If workers do go on the strike they appear to be hurtling toward, it would be the first such strike in 30 years.”

“If a freight strike were to occur — and especially if it’s long-lasting — it could have disastrous effects across an already fragile economy still reeling from supply chain disruptions and inflation.

“Rail moves a lot of the foundational, basic goods that we don’t think about day-to-day,” said Rachel Premack, editorial director at FreightWaves, which covers supply chains. “They’ll move sand and gravel that would then be crushed into concrete for roads or for laying home foundations. Railroads move the chemicals used to purify water or to compromise fertilizer for crops, soybeans that could become food for humans or [animals] that are then food for humans. It’s a lot of early-chain-type goods.”

Many passenger trains also run on freight rails, and their service could be suspended. Amtrak has already warned of potential disruptions and canceled cross-country trains in anticipation of a strike, though so far its Northeast service will not be affected.”

“Replacing freight with other forms of transportation is not easy if workers do walk out. Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, told Vox in an interview that one train has the freight capacity of 400 semi-trucks. “I don’t know of a shipper who just has 400 semis sitting in a garage ready to be accessed,” he said. He noted that for agriculture, the timing couldn’t be worse because of harvest season, adding more urgency for a deal.”

“Under the Railway Labor Act, Congress has the ability to block or end a rail strike. Since 1963, it has passed legislation more than 10 times to intervene in rail disputes.

So far, though, Democratic leaders have been reluctant to commit to doing so, while Republicans have been eager to pressure workers into agreeing to the terms set by the presidential emergency board.

If Congress were to intervene, there are a few routes lawmakers could take. They could require the unions and carriers to accept the presidential emergency board’s conditions, which included a pay increase but no acknowledgment of other demands like sick leave. They could extend the existing cooling-off period so both sides have more time to negotiate. Or they could turn the talks over to independent arbitrators who would be tasked with finding a resolution.

For now, congressional Democrats are waiting to see what might come out of the talks the Labor Department is leading between unions and railroad carriers on Wednesday before they lay out a policy response.”

Biden Celebrates $90 Billion Bailout of Private Union Pension Plans

“a $90 billion bailout of union retirement plans—one that’s completely paid for with federal borrowing.

The bailout was approved last year as part of the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion emergency spending bill that was ostensibly meant to combat COVID-19 but included an impressive array of spending that had nothing to do with public health. The bailout will direct funds to more than 200 nearly insolvent multiemployer pension plans, which are established jointly by unions and the private companies that contract with them through collective bargaining agreements.”

“Millions of union workers, that is. If you’re not part of that select club, there’s no bailout coming your way—even as a sagging economy eats into private retirement savings, inflation makes every saved dollar worth less, and Social Security looms on the brink of insolvency.

Oh, and you’ll have to pay back (with interest!) the money borrowed to make this bailout (and the rest of the American Rescue Plan) possible. Sounds like a great deal, right?”

“What happened to the private multiemployer pension systems will sound familiar to anyone who has followed the slow collapse of public sector pension plans in many states. A 2018 study by the Government Accountability Office found that the Central States Pension Fund, one of the largest and most deeply indebted private multiemployer funds, would have 91 percent of the assets necessary to cover future costs if it had achieved its target annual financial return of 7.4 percent every year since 2000. Instead, the fund has earned an average of less than 5 percent annually and was on pace to run out of money by 2025. (It’s also worth noting that there are more than 1,400 multiemployer pension plans out there; most are well-managed and not at risk of insolvency.)”

“”creates perverse incentives for further mismanagement and underfunding and leaves the taxpayer holding the bag.””

“For the roughly 3 million workers enrolled in the sinking multiemployer plans, the situation may well have been dire. But it wasn’t an emergency. Congress had been bickering for years over how to deal with this problem—until the American Rescue Plan offered an opportunity for a party-line vote to approve a bailout for a constituency that reliably votes Democratic.

In that regard, this is something of a no-brainer. Biden delivered a major win to his labor union allies, put the cost on the taxpayers’ tab, and took a victory lap for doing it.”

Congrats! You formed a union. Now comes the hard part.

“while the hard-won union votes might be the most cinematic part, it’s not the end of the story. The lengthy and difficult process of negotiating a contract that benefits workers has only just begun — and its conclusion is far from certain.

To move forward, the union must write a contract with the company, the union and the company must agree on it, and then union members vote on whether they also agree. The process can take anywhere from six months to a few years — and some don’t end with a contract at all. Some 30 percent of unions don’t establish a contract within three years.

The unions representing Starbucks and Amazon workers are off to a good start because, for the most part, their goals are clear. The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) has said its main objectives are to raise wages to $30 an hour, give workers longer breaks, and mostly eliminate mandatory overtime. The first Starbucks Workers United union, at the Elmwood Avenue store in Buffalo, New York, has been in contract negotiations since January 31; it has so far proposed “just cause” firing, better health and safety protocols, and giving customers the option to tip on credit cards. Future proposals include better wages and benefits.

The harder part, experts say, will be getting Amazon and Starbucks to agree on contracts. That’s not for lack of trying on the unions’ part. Rather, unions often face uphill battles with uncooperative companies and toothless labor laws.”

No Mass Transit Grants for California, Biden Administration Rules

“the U.S. Department of Labor has denied California $12 billion in transit funding, including grants from the recently signed infrastructure bill. The reason? A 1964 federal law requires the labor department to certify that the state agencies seeking any mass-transit grants are “protecting the interests of any affected employees,” The Fresno Bee reported.

So, the Biden administration is claiming that California—the state that provides its public employees with unparalleled pay and pension benefits, and provides collective-bargaining rights unheard of anywhere else—is being mean to its “affected” public employees because the state passed a 2013 law, authored by Democrats, that infinitesimally reined in pension benefits.

As SFist summarized, “Biden is withholding giant amounts of federal money from California public transit because the state’s public-employee pension system is apparently not paying people enough.””

How Many Union Members Does It Take To Operate a Train?

“Labor unions such as the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers have been lobbying federal regulators to mandate that all freight trains operate with two-person crews in the cab. That’s long been the standard industry practice for safety reasons. The engineer drives the train, while the rail conductor handles equipment inspections and monitors track signals. Unions worry that advanced automation will allow railroads to run safely without a second person in the engine—and they want the government to step in to protect those jobs.

This dreaded automation is indeed occurring. All major rail systems in the U.S. now use positive train control (PTC), essentially a computer-based override system that monitors speed and track signals to avert collisions. The adoption of PTC—mandated by Congress since 2008—has helped dramatically reduce rail accidents. Data from the Association of American Railroads (AAR), an industry group, show accidents are down 30 percent since 2000, while employee injuries have fallen by more than 40 percent. Railroading is safer now than it has ever been, in large part due to those technological advances.

With PTC systems handling many of the in-cab duties that were formerly the rail conductor’s responsibility, railroads are seeking to reassign some of those workers. Because rail conductors typically do equipment inspections and perform other duties before trains depart from rail yards and after they return, some will continue to work in that capacity. But any changes to the employment structure have to be approved as part of collective bargaining.”

“without clear and convincing evidence that two-person crews are necessary for trains to operate safety—and with PTC doing a better job of preventing accidents than humans used to—there’s no compelling reason for the government to get involved in this dispute. Private railroads and unions can make their own arrangements.

If Biden needs more convincing, he should check in with his beloved Amtrak. The government-run passenger rail system dropped its own two-people-in-the-cab mandate back in the 1980s.”

L.A. Teachers Union Leader: ‘There’s No Such Thing As Learning Loss’

“It is brutally unfair that thousands of parents have no alternative but to entrust their kids’ education to a system in which people like Myart-Cruz hold the power. Union officials who want to keep employees at home for as long as possible—and don’t care how little math is being taught to students—do not have the kids’ best interests in mind. They are demanding tremendous sacrifices from everyone else, and they have no reason to compromise because there’s zero accountability.

This is why all families deserve school choice: If education officials simply refuse to give students what they need, students should have every right to go elsewhere—and take their share of the system’s education funds with them. No educator who shrugs at the idea of kids falling behind in reading and math is entitled to tax dollars.”

3 winners and 3 losers from the just-completed Supreme Court term

“Roberts has spent much of his career crusading against voting rights, specifically the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the landmark civil rights law that ended Jim Crow practices disenfranchising Black voters and prohibiting race discrimination of all kinds in elections.

As a young Justice Department lawyer, Roberts fought unsuccessfully to convince President Ronald Reagan to veto an important 1982 amendment to the law, which overturned a previous Supreme Court decision making it very difficult to win Voting Rights Act lawsuits. As a justice, Roberts wrote the Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which neutralized much of the law. He also joined two other opinions severely weakening the rest of the law — the latter of which, Brnovich v. DNC, was decided on the last day of this term.

The practical impact of this trilogy is that the Voting Rights Act is barely alive. Under Brnovich, for example, states are likely to have carte blanche to roll back early voting and absentee voting, as well as other, similar innovations that became common in the last four decades. And most challenges to the latest wave of Republican voter suppression laws are likely to fail.”

“in a term gravid with extraordinarily aggressive arguments made by right-wing lawyers, conservatives and Republicans had an exceptionally good run. They convinced the Court to hobble the Voting Rights Act, to open a new line of attack on donor disclosure laws, to expand property rights, to attack unions, and to rewrite the rules governing when religious objectors are exempt from the law.

And that’s after just one term with a 6-3 Court. Next term, the Court will hear a case that could overrule Roe v. Wade.”

The Supreme Court just handed down disastrous news for unions

“Cedar Point is a sign the radical new conservative regime that many Republicans crave and that liberals fear could actually be upon us. The Court fundamentally reshaped much of American property law in Cedar Point. It did so in a party-line vote. And it did so in a case involving labor unions — institutions that are often celebrated by liberals and loathed by conservatives.

The case involves a nearly half-century-old California regulation, which gives union organizers limited, temporary access to farm worksites. Under this regulation, a union may enter such a worksite for up to 30 days at a time, and it may invoke this right up to four times a year. On the days when the union is permitted to enter, it may only speak to the workers for three hours a day — the hour before the start of work, the hour after the end of work, and the workers’ lunch break.

Thus, union organizers are allowed on a farm’s property for a maximum of 120 days a year, and for a total of only three hours per day. And the union also must notify the employer when it wishes to invoke this right.

But the right of unions to enter onto a California farm to organize workers is now in deep trouble. In an opinion penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court held that California’s longstanding regulation violates the Constitution’s “takings clause,” which provides that no one shall have their property taken from them by the government “without just compensation.”

And, in order to reach this result, Roberts rewrites decades of law interpreting that clause.”

“Under the new rule announced in Cedar Point, any law or regulation that “appropriates a right to invade” private property amounts to a per se taking. If California allowed union organizers to enter an employer’s land for a single minute, then California committed a per se taking.
“The right to exclude is ‘one of the most treasured’ rights of property ownership,” Roberts writes. And much of his opinion suggests that any intrusion on this right to exclude amounts to a taking.”

“One problem with Roberts’s expansive view of the takings clause is that it could prevent the government from performing very basic functions, such as health and safety inspections.

Suppose, for example, that a restaurant has a disgusting, rat-infested kitchen that violates numerous local health ordinances. The restaurant’s owners obviously do not want these violations to be discovered, so they refuse to admit any government health inspectors. Under Roberts’s reading of the takings clause, it’s not clear why the restaurant owner should not be allowed to do so — or why it shouldn’t be able to, at the very least, demand compensation from the government before health inspectors can be allowed on their property.

After all, if “the right to exclude is ‘one of the most treasured’ rights of property ownership,” why should an employer be allowed to exclude union organizers but not health inspectors?”

“Roberts’s opinion recognizes that it would be untenable to hold that health and safety inspections violate the Constitution, so he carves out a special rule allowing such inspections to stand. “The government may require property owners to cede a right of access as a condition of receiving certain benefits,” such as a license to operate a business, Roberts writes, so long as that condition “bears an ‘essential nexus’ and ‘rough proportionality’ to the impact of the proposed use of the property.”

Those are some very large and very vague words, and it’s not entirely clear what it means for an inspection requirement to be roughly proportional to “the impact of the proposed use of the property.” Nor is it clear why, if the government can require restaurants to admit health inspectors as a condition of doing business, it can’t also require that restaurant to admit union organizers as a condition of employing workers.

The Court has simply made a value judgment here. It views health inspections as sufficiently important to justify creating an exception to its new understanding of the takings clause, but it doesn’t view protecting a worker’s right to organize as important enough to justify a similar exception.”

“the Court has revolutionized its understanding of the takings clause. And it did so in an opinion that applies an extremely skeptical rule to pro-union regulation while it simultaneously creates carveouts for regulations that the Court’s conservative majority supports.”