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Holiday Railroad Strike Possible As Unions Reject Contract

A sense of deja vu is overtaking the U.S. railroad industry as labor leaders and major railroad representatives try to figure out how to avoid a strike that could bring freight and passenger trains to a halt in the middle of the busy holiday shipping season.

It’s a scenario eerily similar to one that played out just over two months ago, when White House officials helped broker an 11th-hour deal to avoid a national strike back in September.

But that deal was only temporary while it awaited ratification votes by workers represented by 12 different labor unions.

On Monday, Nov. 21, the last and biggest of the 12 unions announced the results of their contract votes: Locomotive engineers voted in favor of the agreement, 54 percent for and 47 percent against, but conductors voted against it 51 percent to 49 percent. The conductors’ union, SMART Transportation Division, now joins three smaller unions back at the negotiating table to try and hash out a deal with six of North America’s seven largest railroads to avoid a strike or lockout.

They face a Dec. 8 deadline.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Monday, Nov. 28, said the House will take up legislation to ratify an agreement between rail workers and operators in order to avert a nationwide rail strike.

“This week, the House will take up a bill adopting the Tentative Agreement — with no poison pills or changes to the negotiated terms — and send it to the Senate,” the California Democrat said in a statement. “It is my hope that this necessary, strike-averting legislation will earn a strongly bipartisan vote, giving America’s families confidence in our commitment to protecting their financial futures.”

The announcement follows President Joe Biden’s call on Monday directing Congress to adopt the agreement reached in September, which was based on recommendations from an emergency board that Biden established in July.

That agreement would give workers a 24 percent raise over five years, from 2020 to 2024; one additional personal day; and some protection from the rail carriers’ punitive attendance policies so that workers can take time off for medical needs without fear of discipline.

But paid sick leave was not on the table and the board recommended to the unions that they withdraw their proposal to have 15 paid sick days. The way rail unions work is that all 12 unions — representing 115,000 freight rail workers — need to agree on a contract, and if one doesn’t agree, workers represented by the others don’t cross the picket line.

Eight of the 12 voted to adopt and ratify the union’s tentative agreement, so the unions went into a cooling- off period that was set to end Dec. 9, meaning the unions then could strike.

The unions that did not ratify the September deal are the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division-International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen and International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, which represent about more than half of rail workers.

“The most common sticking point for BMWED, BRS and IBB Members has been the lack of quality-of-life improvements, namely the lack of paid sick leave,” according to BMWED’s website. “BMWED, BRS and IBB have made paid sick leave proposals to the railroads, but the railroads have made it clear that they will neither engage in any meaningful discussions nor accept any sort of proposal regarding such.”

Biden said that he is concerned about no paid sick leave for rail workers and that he has pressed for legislation to enact it.

“Every other developed country in the world has such protections for its workers,” Biden said in a statement. “But at this critical moment for our economy, in the holiday season, we cannot let our strongly held conviction for better outcomes for workers deny workers the benefits of the bargain they reached, and hurl this nation into a devastating rail freight shutdown.”

These negotiations over employee pay, ability to take time off for medical appointments and paid sick leave have been going on since 2019, between labor unions representing railway employees and the National Carriers’ Conference Committee, which represents the railway carriers.

Congress has the ability to intervene, due to the Railway Labor Act, which governs disputes between railway carriers and labor unions.

“We are reluctant to bypass the standard ratification process for the Tentative Agreement — but we must act to prevent a catastrophic nationwide rail strike, which would grind our economy to a halt,” Pelosi said.

Earlier this year, hundreds of railroaders quit after BNSF Railway enacted a new attendance policy — including in Montana, where the Texas- based railroad employs more than 2,200 people and owns 2,592 miles of track.

“Workers are fed up right now,” AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Greg Regan said last month shortly after two smaller unions voted down their own contracts.

Presently, the unions that have voted against ratification are in “cooling-off” periods that will expire during the first full week of December. At that point, either the unions could go on strike or the railroads could lock employees out. But even if only one union went on strike, it would likely have a cascading effect as workers in other unions refuse to cross the picket line.

In a press release, the president of SMART Transportation Division said that he hoped the railroads and labor could come together to find a resolution without a strike.

“SMART-TD members with their votes have spoken, it’s now back to the bargaining table for our operating craft members,” said President Jeremy Ferguson. “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.”

But it’s unclear how much more the railroad industry is willing to give. Association of American Railroads President Ian Jefferies said in a news release that the window for a deal was “narrowing” and that Congress should be prepared to act if a strike does occur. In decades past, Congress has enacted back-to-work legislation to keep railroaders on the job to protect the nation’s supply chain.

The Association of American Railroads estimates a shutdown of the U.S. freight rail network could cost the national economy $2 billion per day.

Back when a strike looked likely in September, railroads began to secure hazardous material shipments so loads wouldn’t be left unattended outside of rail yards and Amtrak, which often operates its passenger service on tracks owned by the freight railroads, began to cancel trains. That would likely happen again if a deal is not reached and Congress doesn’t act before the deadline.

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