America faces a growing risk of a crippling nationwide freight rail strike in two weeks. Rank and file members of the country’s largest rail union, which represents drivers in the industry, have rejected a tentative labor agreement with the freight railways, the union announced on Monday.
The country’s second-largest railway union, which represents engineers, has ratified its own contract. But the conductors’ failure to ratify their agreement is another setback to efforts to avert a strike.
Thanks to these votes, the 12 railway unions have now completed their ratification process, with members of eight of the unions voting in favor of the agreements and four voting against. The four unions that voted no will stay on at least until early next month, while negotiations are underway to try to avert a strike that could cause widespread disruption to the supply chain and economy. of the country, still in difficulty.
If even one of the twelve railroad unions went on strike, the other 11 would respect the picket lines, shutting down the railroads.
If a strike goes on for an extended period, it could lead to shortages and higher prices for goods, including fuel and food. If the four unions that rejected the agreements fail to reach new agreements before strike deadlines, Congress could order the railroad workers to stay on the job or return to work.
The two unions that published the results of the vote Monday are the transportation division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, Transportation (SMART-TD) union, which represents about 28,000 drivers and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Officers (BLET), which represents about 24,000 engineers. Engineers and conductors form two-person train crews.
The two unions reached tentative agreements in September in a marathon 8 p.m. bargaining session just hours before their previous strike deadlines.
President Joe Biden called the deals “a victory for tens of thousands of railroad workers and for their dignity and the dignity of their work.” He had intervened directly in the last round of talks, but his praise for the deals was not enough to win the approval of rank-and-file members of the conductors’ union.
The agreements nearly got the support they needed to be ratified by both unions. One was ratified by the engineers, with 53.5% yes votes, while the other was a very small defeat by the conductors with either a small majority or a near majority voting for the ratification.
The conductors’ vote ultimately failed because union rules require each of the five categories of workers within the union to approve the deal for it to pass.
Although 64.5% of ‘yardmasters’, including 1,300 union members, supported the deal, 50.87% of the union’s railroad and motor service members voted against ratification. The union has not released vote totals for SMART-TD members.
The negative vote follows similar contract rejections by rank-and-file members of three other railway unions – one representing track maintenance workers, another whose members maintain and operate the signaling system and a third representing locomotive engineers and welders.
The Association of American Railroads, the industry’s trade group, told CNN last week that the railroads still hope to reach new agreements that can be ratified by members without a strike taking place. He repeated that hope on Monday after the last vote.
“While the railroads remain committed to reaching agreements with these remaining unions, the time frame for these to occur is short,” the AAR statement said.
One such union that had previously rejected its deal, the Brotherhood of Way Maintenance Employees Division (BMWED), announced on Monday that it was moving its strike date to December 9, to match the date of the drivers’ strike and one of the other unions.
And he suggested the four unions should negotiate together ahead of a common strike date of December 9.
The only union that could go on strike before December 9, the Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen [BRS]could go on strike at 12:01 a.m. ET on December 5. BRS President Michael Baldwin told CNN last week that the union had no plans to push back its strike deadline “for the time being”.
Even within many of the unions that voted in favor of the deals, there was significant opposition, as shown by the 46.5% of engineers who voted no.
Rejected deals are lucrative for union members. They include an immediate 14% raise with salary arrears dating back to 2020, as well as salary increases totaling 24% over the four-year term of the contracts, which run until 2024. Union members would also receive bonuses in cash of $1,000 per year.
In total, back wages and bonuses will give union members an average payout of $11,000 per worker once the agreement is ratified.
But it was not the salary that was the sticking point of the negotiations. It’s work rules and quality-of-life issues, such as staffing levels and paid sick leave, that the tentative agreements don’t include.
So far, railway management has rejected proposals from union negotiators to add sick pay as a means of securing rank-and-file ratification.
Congress is already facing calls from a wide range of business groups to act to prevent a strike. About 30% of the country’s freight moves by rail, measured by the weight of the freight and the distance it travels.
The AAR has joined these congressional calls for action if new agreements cannot be reached.
“Congress has historically intervened to prevent disruptions to the rail system. In the event that the four unions remain reluctant to reach agreements…Congress must be prepared to act and institute the terms supported by the majority of unions, providing certainty for rail customers and the economy at large,” a- he said in his statement.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who was involved in the negotiations that resulted in the agreements that averted a strike in September, told CNN earlier this month that while he preferred to reach a new round of negotiated settlements, it would be necessary for Congress to act to prevent a strike.
The White House said Monday it counted on the labor and industry parties involved in the negotiations to resolve a rail dispute on their own before the critical December deadline.
“As the president has said from the start, a shutdown is unacceptable because of the damage it would cause to jobs, families, farms, businesses and communities across the country,” a senior law enforcement official said. White House to CNN.
The official added: “A majority of unions have voted to ratify the tentative agreement, and the best option remains for the parties to resolve this themselves.”
Asked Monday by CNN’s Jeremy Diamond what he was doing to avoid a railroad strike, President Biden replied, “We’re going to talk about that today.”
But unlike July, when Biden was able to stop unions from going on strike by appointing a panel to try to find a solution both sides could live with, it’s now up to Congress, not Biden, to act if new work agreements cannot be reached.
The unions are all opposed to congressional intervention and want to be allowed to strike to pressure the railroads into meeting their bargaining goals, although they would not object to the Department again facilitates negotiations.
“We don’t believe it should require the influence or cajoling of an outside party for the railways to be reasonable on behalf of their company or their workers,” BMWED said in a statement. “But it would be helpful if those third parties started to facilitate the discussion. It is clear that the railways will not engage with us in any meaningful way unless they are forced to.
An additional challenge: it would take bipartisan cooperation in the “Lame Duck” session of Congress to pass legislation that will prevent or quickly end a strike.
– CNN’s Betsy Klein and Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report
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