U.S. Rail Strike More Likely After Workers Reject Biden Deal

We might have a massive work stoppage after all.
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Workers with the union SMART turned down the tentative agreement.
Workers with the union SMART turned down the tentative agreement.
SOPA Images via Getty Images

One of the largest unions for U.S. railway workers voted to reject a tentative deal with the major rail carriers, making it more likely that a nationwide strike will hit the system.

The proposal workers turned down was brokered with the help of the Biden administration, which has been trying to head off a work stoppage ahead of the holidays. Many workers say the deal does not go far enough in addressing their concerns, particularly regarding paid sick leave.

Members of the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers, or SMART, narrowly turned down the five-year deal in a 51% to 49% vote, said its president, Jeremy Ferguson. The division represents 28,000 conductors.

“It’s now back to the bargaining table,” Ferguson said in a statement on Monday. “This can all be settled through negotiations and without a strike. A settlement would be in the best interests of the workers, the railroads, shippers and the American people.”

Members of another large union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, voted in favor of the deal 54% to 46%. BLET represents around 24,000 engineers and other workers involved.

The rail negotiations cover thirteen different groups of workers. Even though each union has its own contract, a strike by one group would likely be honored by others, potentially bringing the entire system to a halt.

The SMART conductors are the fourth and largest group to reject the tentative deal. Meanwhile, a separate, smaller group of yardmasters represented by SMART voted to approve it.

The employers involved are the Class 1 railroads such as BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific. They are represented by the National Carriers’ Conference Committee, which noted the close margin in the SMART vote in a statement Monday. The carriers criticized unions that had voted against the deal for demanding terms “that have been accepted by all other rail unions.”

“Even though each union has its own contract, a strike by one group would likely be honored by others, potentially bringing the entire system to a halt.”

“A national rail strike would severely impact the economy and the public,” the group said. “Now, the continued, near-term threat of one will require that freight railroads and passenger carriers soon begin to take responsible steps to safely secure the network in advance of any deadline.”

Because of the impact a rail strike could have on the economy, rail workers cannot go on strike as easily as most other unionized workers in the private sector. The unions and the carriers are subject to certain “cooling off” periods amid negotiations, and the White House has tried to mediate the dispute to avoid a strike.

The rejection of the deal by several unions is a setback for the Biden administration. The White House set up a presidential emergency board this summer aimed at helping both sides settle on an agreement, and the president was involved in last-minute talks ahead of a strike deadline in September. Those discussions resulted in the tentative agreement that the conductors just turned down.

The carriers maintain that the tentative agreement includes “the largest wage increases in nearly five decades,” but many employees say the carriers continue to overwork them while slashing staffing by nearly 30% over six years.

Lack of paid sick leave was a major concern for workers, who said they were tired of being penalized for going to see the doctor. The tentative agreement allowed for some days off for routine doctor visits, but the time would have to be scheduled a month in advance. Some workers were also concerned that changes to the scheduling system would worsen their quality of life.

The current cooling-off period stretches until December 9, at which point the unions could go on strike or the rail carriers could lock out the workers, forcing them off the job. There’s also the possibility Congress intervenes.

Lawmakers have the ability to unilaterally impose a contract patterned on the recommendations made by Biden’s emergency board. Republicans openly pushed to do so in September as a strike deadline approached, but Democrats, who control both the House and Senate until January, did not want to step in and force a deal on the unions.

On Monday, the National Carriers’ Conference Committee reiterated their hope that lawmakers would impose a contract.

“Congress may need to intervene – just as it has in the past – to prevent disruption of the national rail system,” the carriers said Monday.

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