Third Railroad Workers Union Turns Down Pact

Railcars hauling freight (Gene J. Puskar/The Associated Press)

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The possibility of a nationwide freight railroad strike is increasing after another union turned down a tentative agreement that was negotiated in mid-September among the major Class I carriers, a management council and the Biden administration.

The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers voted down the agreement, according to the union and the railroads. The precise vote was not made available.

While the union is the smallest of the bargaining units with only about 300 workers who repair and rebuild diesel locomotives, if any union votes to go on strike and picket lines are set up, it is expected the more than 115,000 workers, including locomotive engineers and conductors, would honor the strike. That would set off an economic crisis, some experts say, as railroads move an estimated 30% of the nation’s freight.



“Tens of thousands of rail customer locations, from sprawling auto plants to mom-and-pop retailers, depend on railroads to deliver raw materials and finished products,” the American Association of Railroads said in a statement. “If these and other rail shipments were halted, the loss in economic output would likely be at least $2 billion per day.”

AAR represents the legislative interests of passenger and freight rail carriers in the U.S.

American Trucking Associations has said a nationwide rail job action would be damaging to the economy and that the industry does not have enough excess capacity to move the freight that railroads would not be able to transport, in the event of a strike.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a statement that if the unions do go on strike, Congress should intervene immediately and impose a settlement, as it is allowed to do, under a 1920s and ’30s era railroad law that allows for the Legislature to impose its own contract terms if a strike occurs.

Joe Biden

Biden

“Despite recommendations from the independent Presidential Emergency Board and the direct intervention of President Biden, three of the 12 rail workers’ unions have rejected a new labor agreement while two other unions have yet to finalize voting on ratification, which creates the possibility of a national rail strike in early December,” the Chamber said in a statement.

“A rail strike would be catastrophic for our economy, costing $2 billion per day and imposing enormous challenges to businesses, local communities and commuters,” the statement said. “Congress has acted 18 times on prior occasions to prevent a rail strike, and we urge the House and Senate to be prepared to act again should a minority of the 12 unions continue to hold out approval on a new contract.”

In late October, a coalition of 322 organizations that relies on the nation’s Class I freight railroads wrote to Biden, urging the White House to continue to seek a settlement.

The letter was sent after a second union, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, rejected the tentative agreement Oct. 26 by a more than 60% margin.

While the union workers are slated to receive pay increases of 24% over five years, and $5,000 bonuses, the members say management’s position on paid time off, vacation scheduling and other contract language issues are at the heart of the dispute.

The unions say the railroads, including a couple that reported more than $1 billion profit in the third quarter, can easily afford to offer paid sick time. The negotiations included CSX, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, BNSF and Kansas City Southern railroads.

As it stands, seven unions have approved the contract, and two unions — the SMART Transportation Division and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen — are set to vote Nov. 21.

Three unions have rejected the deal, but it has been reported that negotiations are ongoing with those groups.

Even as this latest union has turned down the contract, the leadership of the larger unions that have ratified the pact is trying to stop a rebel group —Railroad Workers United — which believes the contract does not go far enough to address working conditions that have impacted morale.

“I need to confront some fringe groups proposing dangerous ideas of unsanctioned work stoppages,” Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division President Tony Cardwell wrote in a letter to union members Oct. 26. The BMWED is the first union to have turned down the agreement. “Workers must be wary of a group throwing disruption grenades from behind a wall of secrecy,” Cardwell wrote. “BMWED will not support or condone an illegal work stoppage, and our bylaws prohibit strike wages or other benefits for an illegal strike.”

Cardwell said he believes the collective bargaining process eventually will produce an agreement.

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