Members of a union that mainly represents rail freight drivers have narrowly rejected a provisional work contract, their union said on Monday.
If the two sides fail to reach another tentative agreement by early December, railroad workers could strike – an outcome that industry officials say could cost the economy more than $2 billion a year. day.
About 51% of voting members of the union, SMART Transportation Division, rejected the deal. Members of a second major union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which mainly represents engineers, voted in favor of the deal, with 53.5% of votes in favor.
“SMART-TD members with their votes have spoken, it’s now back to the bargaining table for our operating members,” SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said in a statement. “All of this can be settled through negotiations and without a strike. A settlement would be in the best interest of workers, railroads, shippers and the American people.
Ian Jefferies, chief executive of the Association of American Railroads, which represents major carriers, said in a statement that “the railroads are ready to enter into new agreements” but that “the window continues to shrink as deadlines are fast approaching.”
The proposal, reached in September with the help of the Biden administration, covered more than 100,000 members of a dozen railroad industry unions and would have raised wages by nearly 25% over the five years that began. in 2020, when the last contract expired.
But railway workers said their main concerns were the grueling and unpredictable schedules that take a toll on their personal lives and their health. Many have complained that the extended time on the road and long periods of on-call work make it difficult to see a doctor for an illness or injury, or to attend family events like a child’s birthday.
Rail carriers say employees can usually meet these needs by taking paid time off. Workers say their employers are limiting their paid leave options in practice – for example, by reducing the windows in which they can take vacation or by rejecting a requested personal day.
The tentative agreement would have allowed workers to take time off up to three times a year for routine medical appointments without risking disciplinary action, but many workers said the concession was insufficient and did not did not address the deeper issue underlying their concerns: a model business that seeks to minimize labor costs and results in chronic understaffing.
The Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that regulates rail freight, estimated that major freight carriers employed about 30% fewer workers this year than six years ago.
Before the drivers’ union voted against the deal, three smaller unions that would be covered by the deal voted against. That in itself could have led to an industry-wide strike, as railroad workers are unlikely to cross the picket lines of other unions.
Skeptical conductors and engineers have pointed out that the tentative agreement could have aggravated staffing problems and made their schedules even less predictable by allowing carriers to implement a staffing change they had long wanted.
Under the current system, conductors and engineers fall to the bottom of a list of available crew when they complete a trip, then gradually work their way up, at which point they are fired.
If a colleague calls in sick, a worker from a group known as an extra roster can be replaced so that other conductors and engineers don’t move up the roster any faster and can maintain some predictability in their schedule.
Workers say cuts to the extra board in recent years have eroded that predictability. The tentative agreement allowed carriers to establish so-called self-sufficient pools that eliminate the use of replacement workers, although it appears to give unions a formal say in whether to do so.
“Self-protected swimming pools are really, really important,” said Michael Paul Lindsey, a member of the Idaho-based engineers union, alluding to why many workers opposed the deal.
Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh, who in September helped broker the deal that the unions rejected, said in a CNN interview this month that Congress should step in to avert a strike if the two sides don’t. could not resolve their differences. It was unclear from the interview whether he was urging an intervention or simply intended to lay out the options available under the law.
Congress participation could take various forms. Congress could extend the so-called cooling off period during which the two sides negotiate without a strike, or force the two sides into arbitration.
He could also pass legislation enacting a proposal put forward over the summer by a presidential emergency council, whose furlough provisions were less generous than the deal just rejected, or impose the deal on more recent itself.
Mr Lindsey said Mr Walsh’s statement angered his colleagues, who believed they should be allowed to strike if the industry did not make enough concessions. He said many workers suspected the administration was primarily concerned with keeping the labor dispute from boiling over ahead of this month’s midterm elections rather than addressing their concerns.
“People feel completely sold out,” Mr Lindsey said, adding: “Now that it’s after the election, there will be no accountability.”
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