You know the old saying, "One man’s meat is another man’s poison"? Well, one of the highlights for me at the last National Mediation Board’s "Conference on Labor/Management Relations at the Passenger Railroads" in Washington DC was the comment of William Murphy, Deputy General Manager Labor Relations on New Jersey Transit. Speaking on behalf of management at the Seminar on Coalition Bargaining, Murphy got some laughs by suggesting that the definition of a coalition is "a form of conspiracy." But it was said only half in jest, because the truth is, rail management’s worst nightmare is to confront a coalition of unions determined to focus on common issues such as wages, supplemental pensions, and medical benefits.

And it’s no wonder why railroad managers hate union coalitions: they put a stop to their "divide and conquer" strategy. As George Francisco, President of National Conference of Firemen & Oilers SEIU, pointed out at the Seminar, traditionally rail carriers whipsaw the unions, first by dividing them (often by using the egos of union representatives as a wedge) in order to gain a favorable "pattern" contract with one union, and then by bludgeoning one union after another with their so-called "pattern" contract. The only defense against this strategy is for rail unions to recognize their common self-interests and to work together as a team to achieve their common bargaining goals.

Now God knows coalitions are not perfect (or easy to maintain), but they certainly beat the alternative. And the proof is in the pudding. Perhaps the longest running example of an effective Coalition is on Metro-North Railroad. Started in 1984 amidst the ashes of Conrail’s Metropolitan District, for the past 25 years the unions on Metro-North Railroad have maintained a working Coalition both for collective bargaining and sharing information on common issues. As a result, today Metro-North’s contract is one of the best on any railroad in the country. For a Railway Labor Executive Association White Paper on the Metro-North Labor Coalition, click here.

So Bill Murphy has good reason to fear the newly formed New Jersey Transit Railroad Coalition. And for the first time the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad is facing a Coalition of its unions as well. So to those union reps on New Jersey Transit (such as Dean Devita, Arthur Davidson, and Pat Reilly) and on MBCR and elsewhere with the wisdom to see the advantages of forming such coalitions, I say, "Right on, keep the faith, and never forget: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good."