By Gretchen Wehmhoff
Twenty-seven members of Skagway SMART-TD Local 1626 were issued ballots June 26 polling member’s willingness to give leadership the authorization to call a strike as negotiations between engineers, conductors and brakemen continue a nearly six-year-long bargaining process with White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad (WPYR).
According to the SMART website on July 6, the vote did indeed authorize a strike.
The voting process covered a 72-hour voting period to accommodate work schedules. The final vote is based on the majority of votes cast by active members. SMART-TD did not share the results of the vote publicly until today.
Local 1626 members have been without a new contract since 2017, leaving workers under a contract last negotiated prior to 2017. Per the rules of the Railway Labor Act (RLA), in the absence of an updated contract, workers continue to work under the most recent prior agreement until a new settlement is approved by both labor and management.
A lack of a renewed agreement means there has not been a bargained pay increase for members since at least 2017. Members still receive the health benefits and wages from the current contract.
SMART-TD and the previous owners, TWC Enterprises of WPYR (Skagway Port and Rail), were in position to begin negotiations in 2017. SMART-TD filed a Section-6, a formal notice to bargain under the RLA.
Those talks were paused when WPYR gave notice to the union of the pending sale to the current owners. The sale was finalized in 2018.
The new owners, Survey Point Holdings, with investors Rail Management Services, Carrix and Carnival, began bargaining with SMART-TD in December 2018.
Due to the prolonged negotiation history, not all members of the SMART-TD negotiation committee are the same as the original group who filed the Section 6 notice.
Jason Guiler, a conductor for the railroad and the current chairman of Local 1626, and four other local members represent the union along with Brent Leonard, vice-president of the national union. Guiler is the third general chairman since the process began.
WPYR has been represented at the table through the process by Executive Director of Human Resources and Strategic Planning Tyler Rose and Superintendent of Railroad Operations Mark Taylor.
A global pandemic, gradual return of cruise ships and a landslide prone mountain above Skagway’s Railroad Dock added to the delay.
As with most labor negotiations, final discussions are centered around wages and benefits. Rose did not publicly disclose the specifics of the discussions or how far apart the parties were. He acknowledged that Skagway is a small, close-knit community and that all of the parties live in the same town.
Guiler mentioned that the union is seeking retroactive wages. Tyler chose not to respond publicly to the retroactivity demand during mediation.
“However, we do not think it is appropriate to comment to the media on the mediation process at this time,” Rose said.
Eventually, SMART-TD believed the negotiations were at an impasse and contacted the U.S. National Mediation Board (NMB) to begin the mediation process.
The two parties were assigned federal mediator Gerry McGurkin by NMB. The groups met with McGurkin (who attends the sessions remotely) in May, June, and most recently June 30 into July 1. The next mediation session is scheduled for July 8. Additional sessions for July and August are scheduled.
Guiler notes that unlike regular bargaining, talking points are all back on the table for discussion in mediation.
“But the reality of it is, is that when the contract is up for a discussion, especially now that it’s in mediation, everything’s on the table until none of it is,” Guiler said.
A strike vote by the union members gives the leadership the go ahead to call a work stoppage, but there is a regulated series of events that need to occur before that can happen.
First, mediation continues until the mediator determines that the parties are not able to come together for an agreement. In this case, McGurkin would seek formal approval for a release from mediation by the NMB. The three-member board appointed by the president of the United States must agree by at least a two-thirds vote that the parties have mediated with effort and good faith.
At the point of release from mediation, the parties are released to take action, but only after a mandatory 30-day cooling off period – a time where both parties are not able to strike or take action. For example, if a release is requested and approved on July 31, the 30-day cooling off period would end on August 30. No strike by the union or changes to the status quo by the railroad can occur until August 30.
It is not clear as to how long it takes between the mediator’s request to NMB to when the release from mediation is granted.
At the end of the cooling off period, the union has a right to strike against the company and the company has the right to create work rules – which most often results in maintaining the current contract. WPYR could also hire workers who are willing to cross the picket line.
Arbitration is usually the final attempt to resolve labor disputes or negotiations. Parties bring their offers, discussions and defense to an impartial third-party who designs a binding resolution. Either side may request arbitration. Under the RLA, if both sides agree to arbitration, the results are binding.
Earlier this year, WPYR and the Teamsters signed a tentative agreement giving other WPYR employees a three-year contract. Those negotiations became complicated with the company’s abolishment of some positions, leaving several longtime railroad employees without a job. The issue eventually went to binding arbitration resulting in a ruling that favored WPYR’s staffing decisions.
This is an ongoing story. The Skagway News will continue with updates as available. The story was updated to correct a date in the first paragraph . The date was corrected to ready June 26