Largest railway union rejects contract and stirs up fears of strikes

Updated November 21, 2022 at 2:45 p.m. ET

On the eve of the holiday season, workers at the heart of the supply chain are once again threatening strikes.

Four railroad unions, with a combined membership of nearly 60,000 railroad workers, rejected the five-year deal brokered by the Biden administration in September. The latest rejection came on Monday from the largest union, which represents around 28,000 conductors, brakemen and warehouse workers.

Eight other unions have ratified the deal, but they too could be dragged into this industrial action. Because if one union decides to go on strike, all unions representing about 115,000 freight rail workers will picket lines.

Such a move would not only bring freight trains to a standstill, but also some Amtrak and commuter rail systems that operate on tracks owned by the freight railroads.

About 30% of freight in the US is transported by rail – everything from chlorine to corn to automobiles. The Association of American Railroads estimates that a nationwide rail shutdown could cost the country $2 billion a day in lost economic output.

The two largest railway unions split on the treaty vote

In September, the two largest railroad unions, the SMART Transportation Division and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, came to Washington to try to settle their differences with the railroads.

A marathon bargaining session chaired by US Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh resulted in a deal union leaders thought their base would accept.

The deal gave workers a 24% pay rise over five years, an extra personal day and caps on healthcare costs. It also includes some changes to the railroads’ strict attendance policies, allowing workers to attend to medical needs without facing missed-work penalties.

President Biden described it as a win for all sides and the US economy. The railroads called it the most generous treaty in modern history, noting that if ratified, workers would receive an average payout of $16,000 in raises and bonuses.

President Joe Biden shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh September 15, 2022 after discussing the White House-brokered railroad agreement.  The deal was ratified by nine out of twelve railway unions.

Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images


AFP via Getty Images

President Joe Biden shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh September 15, 2022 after discussing the White House-brokered railroad agreement. The deal was ratified by eight out of twelve railway unions.

But the workers still had to vote on the contract. On Monday the ballot papers of the two largest unions were counted.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, representing around 23,000 workers, voted 53.5% to ratify the agreement.

But the SMART Transportation division, which represents 28,000 conductors, brakemen, warehouse workers and others, rejected the agreement by a 50.87% vote against.

“SMART-TD members have spoken with their voices, now it’s back to the negotiating table for our operational craft members,” SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said in a statement. “All this can be settled through negotiations and without a strike. A settlement would be in the best interests of workers, the railroads, shippers, and the American people.”

The agreement date is December 8th

SMART Transportation Division and three other unions that previously rejected the contract are now returning to the negotiating table. If no agreement is reached by December 8, two things could happen as early as 00:01 on December 9: the railroad could lock out workers, or workers could go on strike.

The Association of American Railroads says railroads are ready to make new agreements based on the original framework put forward by President Biden’s Emergency Committee, but warned the window for an agreement is narrowing.

“Let’s be clear, if the remaining unions don’t accept an agreement, Congress should be ready to act and avoid catastrophic $2 billion a day in damage to our economy,” said AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies in an explanation.

Congress has the power to intervene when workers go on strike

Should there be a strike, Congress would likely step in within hours. The Railroad Labor Act allows Congress to take any number of measures to get the trains running again – including imposing a version of the treaty or extending the status quo, with any decision going to the next Congress.

At a series of town hall meetings last month, union leaders refrained from telling engineers and conductors how to vote, but warned that if they rejected the contract in favor of a strike, the matter would be out of their hands.

“Make your own decisions,” Dennis Pierce, national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said Nov. 9 at a city hall in Independence, Ohio [Congress] will leave us crippling the nation’s economy for a time that I don’t think likely.

Paid sick leave and attendance regulations are still major sticking points

The unions admit that the agreement, which was sent to the grassroots vote, fell short of their expectations. While the deal included substantial pay rises, which workers are easily anticipating inflation, it did not bring paid sick leave, a major disappointment for workers after carrying the railroads through the pandemic.

Unions have been able to give workers some protection from the strict attendance policies of some railway companies. Under the agreement, workers can miss work to attend to medical problems without being subject to disciplinary points, but there are restrictions and the time off is unpaid.

In addition, the agreement allows unions to negotiate more regular working hours for engineers and conductors, who are essentially on call around the clock. Unions say this is a major win for workers and would represent a significant improvement in the quality of life.

Meanwhile, two unions that rejected the deal last month – the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees and the Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen – are still awaiting paid sick leave. They have argued that railroad workers should be paid the same amount that federal contractors are required to provide – 56 hours – but say they would make a deal for less than that.

Unions are also exploring other avenues to secure paid sick leave, including through executive branch orders, SMART-TD President Ferguson told workers at a city hall earlier this month.

“We’re not done yet,” he assured them.

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