Rail unions threaten strike

Labor unions in the U.S. rail freight sector are still divided over a government-backed employment agreement, increasing the chance of a nation-wide strike before the busy year-end holidays.

One of the largest railroad unions narrowly voted to reject a contract deal brokered by the White House, bringing the country once again closer to a rail strike that could paralyze much of the economy ahead of the holidays, union officials announced on Monday.

The union representing roughly 28,000 rail conductors, SMART Transportation Division, voted the deal down by 50.9 percent, the union said. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which represents engineers, announced on Monday that 53.5 percent of members voted to ratify the deal. These unions represent 57,000 workers and are the largest and most politically powerful of the 12 rail unions in contract discussions.

A national rail strike, which could happen as early as Dec. 5, could threaten the nation’s coal shipments and its supply of drinking water and shut down passenger rail. The U.S. economy could lose $2 billion a day if railroad workers strike, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Already seven of 12 unions have voted to approve their contracts. But in recent weeks, three of the smaller unions, including the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, have also rejected their contracts and are back in negotiations.

The main sticking points for rank-and-file members have been points-based attendance policies that penalize workers for taking time off when they are sick, and contribute to grueling, unpredictable schedules that weigh on workers’ mental and physical health, they say.

“Honestly, this vote is about the frustration that the railroads have created with [their attendance policies] and the deterioration of quality of life as a result for our conductors,” Jared Cassity, the national legislative director at SMART Transportation and a conductor. “It’s about attendance policies, sick time, fatigue, and the lack of family time. A lot of these things that cannot be seen but are felt by our membership. It’s destroying their livelihoods.”

Cassity said the union would likely immediately resume negotiations with rail carriers as their strike deadline looms on Dec. 8.

But unless Congress intervenes or a new deal is reached, workers at the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen would be allowed to strike and companies would be able to impose a lockout even sooner, right after midnight Dec. 5.

If those unions strike on Dec. 5, all of the unions would likely move in solidarity, provoking an industry-wide work stoppage.

After reaching an impasse in negotiations earlier this year, the White House appointed an emergency board in July to mediate the dispute between six major rail carriers and 12 unions that represent 115,000 railroad workers. But unions rejected that agreement.

Attendance policies have been at the heart of the dramatic showdown between the nation’s largest rail carriers and railroad workers, who did not strike after President Biden and other top administration officials brokered a last-minute agreement in late September.

That deal included a 24 percent pay increase by 2024 — the largest for railroad workers in more than four decades — and new flexibility for workers to take time off when they are hospitalized or to attend routine doctor’s appointments without penalty.

But discontent among rail workers continued to brew. They say much of the points-based attendance policy was left in place. The deal included a single additional paid day off, drawing ire from union members who say they have been forced to prioritize the rail carriers’ schedules over their health and families to remain in good standing with their employers.

“In rejecting its agreement, SMART-TD also rejected the pathway for further scheduling negotiations,” a statement from the Association of American Railroads said.

Under the Railway Labor Act of 1926, Congress can intervene in the case of a railway strike to impose a contract on the railroads to block or stop a rail strike.

If that happens, there would be a short period after Thanksgiving for lawmakers to step in to impose a contract. Some Republican lawmakers have said they are ready to impose a contract negotiated earlier this year by the White House which does not address paid sick leave and points-based attendance policies that prevent workers from going to routine doctors’ appointments with facing penalties.

Jordan Boone, 41, a union rail conductor with SMART Transportation Division in Galesburg, Ill., said members he knows rejected the contract because the White House did not fully address their quality of life concerns. He also noted that workers felt national media coverage misrepresented the gains in the contract as a victory.

“Workers feel like they’ve been wronged,” Boone said. “There’s the notion of why vote for something that we don’t 100 percent like. Some of us would rather be forced [by Congress] to take something than vote to take something we are not on board with.”

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