Railroad workers picket in Bethlehem
The Morning Call: June 17, 2005
By Jeanne Bonner
Norfolk Southern, union in dispute over clause in contract.
A Norfolk Southern Railroad yard in Bethlehem was one of about 20 sites on the East Coast where railway workers briefly picketed Thursday morning.
Members of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen set up picket lines in Bethlehem and Altoona, among other places, at 5:45 a.m. because of a dispute in contract negotiations. Norfolk Southern filed for and received a temporary restraining order in Roanoke, Va., that shut down the picket lines within an hour.
A union spokesman in Front Royal, Va., said the strike stemmed from a disagreement over a clause that allows Norfolk Southern to use non-union contract workers on some projects.
Officials from both Norfolk Southern and the union said the picket action was brief.
''It didn't impact our service,'' said Norfolk spokesman Rudy Husband.
Norfolk Southern employs between 300 and 400 people at its Allentown and Bethlehem operations, including 14 signal workers in Bethlehem, Husband said. Signal workers install and maintain the control systems for the railroads, including the warning gates and flashing lights at railroad crossings.
Jerry Boles, vice president of the signalmen's headquarters, said the contract clause permits Norfolk Southern to hire nonunion workers only for large projects where there are not enough union employees to carry out the work. He said Norfolk Southern has hired contractors for smaller projects such as a signal installation between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn.
''We feel like if they did it on this project, they are going to try to continue to do this,'' Boles said. ''That's why we want to stop this early.''
Husband confirmed the dispute involved the use of subcontractors in that track and signal project but said the company is complying with the collective bargaining agreement. He declined to comment on whether the company intended to use subcontractors on a wider basis.
A hearing on the contract dispute is scheduled for June 24 in federal court in Roanoke.
Negotiations between Norfolk and the union have been ongoing since last year.
According to the Railways Labor Act, workers can strike only over major disputes. The union believes this is a major dispute, while the company characterizes it as a minor issue.
Railway workers bargain nationally for wages and health care. For other issues such as work rules, the unions negotiate directly with the railway companies.
Norfolk Southern announced this year it wanted to hire 30 to 40 workers for its Allentown operation.
The hiring comes as the company anticipates a wave of retirements. Industrywide, railroad companies are hiring because of the aging work force and also because freight shipments are up.