A sense of déjà vu sweeps through the US rail industry this week as union leaders and key railroad officials try to figure out how to avoid a strike that could bring freight and passenger trains to a standstill in the middle of the busy holiday shipping season.
It’s a scenario eerily similar to the one that played out just over two months ago, when White House officials helped broker an eleventh-hour deal to avoid a nationwide strike in September. But that deal was temporary while awaiting ratification votes from workers represented by 12 different unions.
On Monday, the last and largest of the 12 unions announced the results of their collective bargaining vote: train drivers voted 54% in favor and 47% against the agreement, while conductors voted 51% to 49%. The conductors’ union, SMART Transportation Division, is now rejoining three smaller unions at the negotiating table in an attempt to negotiate a deal with six of North America’s seven largest railroads to avoid a strike or lockout. They face a December 8 deadline.
Union leaders, railroad management and President Joe Biden touted the tentative deal signed in September as a win-win. As part of the deal, the railroad workers will get the biggest pay rise in 45 years plus a $5,000 bonus. But the contract, the result of years of negotiations, comes at a time of palpable frustration among workers over how the railroads are operated and how workers are treated. While the railroad has always been a tough industry, requiring long hours and an unpredictable work schedule, engineers, conductors and others say their working conditions have never been worse. Earlier this year, hundreds of railroad workers quit after BNSF Railway issued 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 at the moment,” Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Division, said last month, shortly after two smaller unions rejected their own contracts.
Currently, the unions that voted against ratification are in a “reflection period” which ends in the first full week of December. At that point, either the unions could go on strike or the railroads could lock out workers. But even if only one union went on strike, it would likely have a cascading effect, with workers from other unions refusing to cross the picket line.
In a press release, the president of SMART Transportation Division said he hoped railroads and workers could come together to find a non-strike solution.
“SMART-TD members have spoken with their voices, now it’s back to the negotiating table for our operational Craft members,” said President Jeremy Ferguson. “It can all be settled through negotiations and without a strike. A settlement would be in the best interests of workers, the railroads, shippers, and the American people.”
But it’s unclear how much more the rail industry is willing to give. Association of American Railroads President Ian Jefferies said in a press release that the window for an agreement is “shrinking” and that Congress should be ready to act if a strike occurs. For the past few decades, Congress has enacted return-to-work legislation to keep railroad workers on the job and protect the country’s supply chain.
The Association of American Railroads estimates that closing the US railroad network could cost the national economy $2 billion a day.
In September, when a strike looked likely, the railroads began securing hazmat trains so the loads weren’t left unattended outside marshalling yards, and Amtrak, which often operates its passenger service on rail-owned tracks, began canceling trains. That would likely happen again if no agreement is reached and Congress doesn’t act before the deadline.
Railway workers are quitting after the BNSF introduced a ‘draconian’ attendance policy
Employees say working conditions at BNSF Railway have deteriorated following the introduction of a new attendance policy, which a workers’ representative has described as “the worst and most outrageous” ever introduced by a railway company. Hundreds have given up their jobs as a result.
Railroads and unions agree on tentative deal to avoid network closure
Less than 24 hours before much of the country’s rail network could have ground to a halt, President Joe Biden announced early Thursday morning that a tentative deal had been negotiated between the country’s largest rail freight companies and unions representing tens of thousands of railroad workers. Now union members can…