By Jon Flanders - Labor Notes, February 18, 2016
Image, right: A boilermaker works on a locomotive plow, a part that often gets damaged in operation. Railroad workers recently voted down a concessionary deal that would have blended machinists' and pipefitters' jobs together. Photo by the author.
Union members have become used to a certain pattern: threats of plant closings and layoffs, followed by a vote to reopen the contract and make concessions to “save jobs.”
In the railroad shops of the CSX corporation, this pattern has been broken.
Last fall CSX made an offer to its machinists and pipefitters—backed by their unions, the Machinists (IAM) and SMART. The tentative agreement would merge the two crafts into a single job, “Master Mechanic.” For instance, the master mechanic would install both power assemblies (previously machinists’ work) and radiators (previously pipefitters’ work).
Management painted the concessionary deal in glowing terms. But in December, workers in both crafts bucked the threat and overwhelmingly voted no.
Nationally there are around 8,000 railroad machinists. They rebuild locomotives from the ground up and do preventative maintenance such as replacing power assemblies, turbos, traction motors, and other mechanical items.
Pipefitters work on the extensive pipe systems on locomotives: air, fuel, and oil.
Collectively, these railroad shop workers maintain the locomotive fleet for all the major railroads in the U.S.
The critical role they play got front-page attention after a defective locomotive led to a 2013 disaster in the town of Lac Mégantic, Quebec. A runaway train carrying crude oil exploded, killing 47 people.
MORE WORK, SAME PAY
CSX Chief Administrative Officer Lisa Mancini claimed in a September press release that the contract deal reflected the unions’ and company’s “collective commitment to finding innovative ways to support our employees while driving long-term efficiency.”
Needless to say, the affected workers saw things a little differently. It looked to them like more work for the same pay.
Machinists and pipefitters would have to learn each other’s jobs. Previously, if a job called for both piping and mechanical, the two crafts might have worked together on a team. Now the whole job might be done by whoever was at hand—leading to job losses all around.
CSX was promising to guarantee jobs for two years, but not many thought the guarantee would last much longer.
The agreement would have given up not only traditional job jurisdictions, but also seniority and employee-protection agreements, where laid-off machinists are paid a percentage of their wages for a period of time based on years of service.
Layoffs are a particular concern for these workers—who might otherwise be forced to move rather than spend time looking for another job near home.
The initial proposal met with resistance; meetings reportedly went very badly. Workers who’d always been quiet before were making ominous-sounding threats against union officers.
Next CSX closed the 100-year-old Corbin locomotive shop in Kentucky and the Erwin railyard in Tennessee, citing the decline in coal shipments.
Many machinists and pipefitters lost jobs in these shops. Layoffs of other crafts, such as the boilermakers, followed. Obviously management hoped this would bring pressure to bear.
In reality, despite the decline in coal shipments, CSX has yet to go in the red. Last summer, while it was negotiating the concessions, the company announced its profits had risen 4.5 percent in the second quarter and it had beaten its own expectations for earnings. In the full year 2015, the company made $3.6 billion in operating profit.