A third railroad union rejects proposed contract, further raising the odds of a strike

Originally Published: 14 NOV 22 16:01 ET
Updated: 14 NOV 22 16:25 ET

(CNN) — A third railroad union has rejected a tentative labor deal, a move that further raises the odds that America’s 110,000 freight railroad workers will go on strike early next month.

The rank-and-file members of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers voted against a tentative agreement reached in September, according to the union and the railroads. The precise margin of the opposition to the proposed deal was not immediately available.

The union represents about 300 workers who repair and rebuild diesel locomotives and railroad tracks. It is the smallest of 13 unions that represent more than 100,000 union members at the nation’s major freight railroads. But if any of those unions do strike the railroads, its picket lines would honored by the other unions, which would shutdown a still vital link in the nation’s supply chain.

The National Carriers’ Conference Committee, which represents management in the negotiations, said it was “disappointed” by the vote, but that since a cooling off period remains in place, “the failed ratification does not present the risk of any strike or job action taken by IBB and the potential for any resulting service disruptions” until at least December 9.

The union’s brief statement on the vote said it “fully expects to continue negotiating further toward a satisfactory contract” with railroad management. But the vote is a sign of the threat that the nation’s railroads could grind to a halt in a matter of weeks, due to the difficulty in reaching a deal that will be acceptable to both front-line workers and the railroads.

In October members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes District (BMWED), which represents about 23,000 track maintenance workers, voted to reject a similar tentative deal. So did the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, who maintain the signal system needed to run the railroads. The two unions are set to go on strike as soon as December 4.

The no votes are stark evidence of the widespread anger towards railroad management among workers and raise the bar on crafting agreements they might ratify. The vote has been close at some of the unions that have ratified the tentative deals negotiated by their leadership.

The two largest rail unions, representing the engineers and conductors who make up the two-person train crews, are holding their own ratification votes, the results of which will be known on November 21.

Each union rejecting ratification raises the odds that one of them could go on strike, which would be enough to shut down the four major US freight railroads. Unless new deals can be reached that can win ratification votes, the only way to prevent a strike would be through Congressional action that orders workers to stay on the job.

A freight railroad strike would create massive problems for the US economy, snarling still-struggling supply chains and triggering widespread bottlenecks and shortages.

About 30% of US freight, when measured by weight and distance traveled, moves by rail. Any prolonged strike could send prices for goods from gasoline to food to cars soaring. In addition, factories could be forced to shut temporarily due to parts shortages. Products that consumers want to buy could be missing from store shelves.

Labor relations at railroads are subject to a different labor law than the one that governs workers at most US businesses. Railroad unions face limits on when they can strike and are prohibited from taking action during the “status quo” periods that follow a no-vote by membership.

The deals being voted down are lucrative for union members. They include an immediate 14% raise with back pay dating to 2020, as well as pay raises totaling 24% during the four-year life of the contracts, which run through 2024. Union members also would receive cash bonuses of $1,000 a year.

All told, the backpay and bonuses will give union members an average payment of $11,000 per worker once the deal is ratified.

But it’s not the pay that has been the sticking point in the negotiations, it’s the work rules and quality of life issuessuch as staffing levels and paid sick time, which the tentative agreements do not include. So far railroad management has rejected proposals from union negotiators to add sick pay as a way to win ratification from the rank and file.


Will Congress act to avert a strike?


Congress can also prevent or end a strike by extending a cooling-off period during which the unions cannot strike, or by imposing a contract on union members.

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who was involved in a marathon 20-hour bargaining session between rail management and three of the unions in September to avert a strike, said last month he remains hopeful that the unions and management will be able to reach new agreements acceptable to rank and file members.

Without such progress, though, Congress will have to act to prevent a strike, he said.

If “for some reason [one of the unions] doesn’t get to an agreement with the companies then … Congress will have to take action to avert a strike in our country,” Walsh said in an interview with CNN.

The unions are clear that they don’t want Congressional action to impose a contract that keeps them on the job. They believe the threat of a strike is the best way to get a new deal their members can accept, particularly one which provides paid sick time missing from the current labor deals.

“Congress should not have to intervene. The railroads should provide paid sick leave to its employees,” the BMWED said in a statement in response to Walsh’s comments. “They have the money to do it, and it literally would cost them a penny of every dollar of record profits to provide it. It’s only 2% of what CSX, NS and UP spent so far this year in stock buybacks. It’s literally nothing to them, yet they refuse to provide it.

Even before the September strike deadline, many business groups were urging Congress to act. But Democratic leadership expressed reluctance to order the unions to stay on the job.

Control of the House of Representatives in the new Congress is still unknown as vote counting continues in the wake of last week’s midterm elections. But Democrats will still have control of the House and Senate during the so-called lame duck session through the end of the year. It would still required a certain level of bipartisanship to get legislation through both houses of a closely divided Congress to end or prevent a strike.

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