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Interview with Nick Geale, Former Chair of the National Mediation Board

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

It’s not every day that labor relations make headline news, but as the pandemic enters a new phase grievances among workers are becoming increasingly vocalised – particularly in the transport industry. In trucking, experts warn that the industry is struggling to attract new drivers, leading to a staffing crisis as older truckers reach retirement with no one to replace them. Tensions around working conditions and the remaining federal Covid-19 restrictions came to a head in March, when a convoy of truck-drivers calling themselves the ‘People’s Convoy’ descended on Washington D.C. in protest.

Nick Geale

In the airline industry, pilots at Delta and Southwest Air Lines have recently protested against scheduling demands, triggering negotiations with union officials. Airlines have been under serious pressure in recent months to keep up with the sudden surge in demand, despite losing $5.1 billion as an industry in 2021 alone. Delta has already hired 4,000 staff so far this year but the circumstances are difficult to navigate.

Someone who knows a lot about tackling these kinds of issues is Nick Geale, Vice President of the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and the former Chair of the National Mediation Board (NMB): the government agency tasked with managing relations between workers and management in the airline and railroad industries. Nick spoke to us at US Transport News about the disputes currently affecting the transport industry and what possible paths there are to resolving them. His comments are made in a personal capacity.

For the benefit of our readers, could you please explain a little about the National Mediation Board and what its role is in US labor relations?

The National Mediation Board (NMB), established by the 1934 amendments to the Railway Labor Act of 1926, is an independent U.S. federal government agency that facilitates labor-management relations within the nation’s railroad and airline industries. The Board is charged with avoiding interruption to commerce or to the operation of any carrier; maintaining freedom of association among employees; settlement of disputes concerning rates of pay, rules, or working conditions; and settlement of all disputes growing out of grievances related to the implementation and management of collective bargaining agreements. The NMB is in fact one of the best values for the taxpayer in the federal government and has been for almost 90 years. The NMB has some of the most capable and dedicated career staff I have ever worked with. The most important thing for the public to know is that it is actually illegal for labor to strike or management to lockout or impose a new contract without the 3 member Board’s permission.

For a time you sat as the only Republican on the NMB’s board. Does party politics play a big role in the NMB’s work and how would you settle disagreements within the board.

The Board Members took the NMB mission seriously and we worked together to avoid disruptions. I believe there was only a half day strike on one public transit system during my time and every decision on a mediation issue was unanimous. We had our differences on representation issues especially scope of coverage of contractors to airlines but even those differences were fairly narrow compared to the NLRB’s massive pendulum swings and most representation decisions were also unanimous.

Delta Air Lines has hired 4,000 additional staff this year to keep up with the surge in demand for travel.

Based on your distinguished career in labor relations and transport, what would you say are the main challenges now facing the transport industry post-pandemic.

The transportation industry is blessed with extremely capable and dedicated leadership across the board. I know there were some extremely difficult periods particularly with the shut down of air travel and transit systems but I am optimistic that as we emerge from the pandemic all aspects of these vital industries will have a successful recovery. One of the major challenges for every industry these days -- and it’s acutely true for trucking and airlines right now -- is manpower. The USDOL recently reported the highest level of job openings ever for example.

One of the major mediation issues in the news currently is the protests from Southwest and Delta Air Lines over pilots’ schedules. Given the difficulty the industry faced during the pandemic, and the lengths to which airlines are going to recruit additional staff, do you feel industrial action is fair?

I am not privy to the details of those issues but as noted industrial action is not allowed absent an impasse in bargaining and the NMB would have to make that determination after making every effort to reach an agreement between the parties. Until they develop a joint solution, the current contract continues also.

I know both those carriers’ pilots unions and management worked together to avoid disruptions and ensure the least harm to employees and their customers during the pandemic. That model may be beneficial in developing a solution to any current issues also.

Relatedly, many unions are currently in labor negotiations with airlines. How much consideration for COVID's financial impact should unions factor into their expectations of these discussions?

The most successful contract negotiations have both parties prepared and transparent about their needs and capacities at the table. Taking an interest based approach and working together with a mediator from the NMB is the shortest path to a resolution and the best way to ensure carriers are profitable and employees share in that.

The trucking industry is struggling to attract young drivers post-pandemic.

In your role as vice president of workforce policy at the American Trucking Association, you have warned of the massive driver shortage in the industry. What measures do employers and the government need to take to ensure a steady flow of new drivers?

80% of the country depends 100% on trucks for their daily needs. Our industry needs 80,000 drivers and it’s a quality middle class job that cannot be off-shored. It’s a relatively short training period of about two months to get your CDL and wages are going up fast – 9% per year for long haul drivers for the last 3 years.

ATA has been working with Congress and the Administration to expand opportunities for new entrants into the trucking industry, including improving training and ensuring young drivers have the necessary support to join the industry. I have urged our members to get involved with local and state workforce boards and ATA recently became a registered apprenticeship sponsor for drivers and technicians. We have an all of the above approach for fixing the shortage.

Last month we saw protests by truckers from the American Freedom Convoy in Washington D.C, emulating similar demonstrations by Canadian drivers the month prior. With Covid regulations being phased out do you feel this level of anger has subsided or is it still an issue that is likely to present itself again.

The US fortunately avoided a lot of the disruption that Canada experienced in part because ATA brought a lawsuit against OSHA’s mandate when they didn’t listen to us or our drivers. It was in fact our case along with the state Attorneys General that the Supreme Court heard. We had good data showing that our drivers were at lower risk than the population and we are proud of the success we had in protecting their rights and the industry from a massive overreach by OSHA.

Our drivers are our most important resource and they take care of themselves and others on the road every day across the country. They had continued to deliver and literally kept the country fed and supplied with vaccines and protective equipment like masks for a year and a half before OSHA came up with its ill-conceived mandate.

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