Railway engineers accepted their deal with the railways that will deliver 24% raises, but conductors rejected theirs, threatening the health of the economy just before the holidays and raising further doubts about whether the industry will be able to resolve the labor dispute before the holiday. deadline next month without help from Congress.
Even the threat of a work stoppage could entangle the nation’s supply chain, as railways will freeze shipments of chemicals and other products that could create hazards if stopped halfway to their destination.
A split vote Monday by the two largest rail unions follows the rejection by three other unions of their agreements with the railroads that the Biden administration helped broker before the original strike deadline in September. Seven smaller unions approved the five-year agreement which, in addition to the 24% raise, includes $5,000 in bonuses.
But many union members have voted to reject the contracts because, they say, they don’t address demanding schedules and quality-of-life issues for employees.
The 12 must approve the contracts to avoid a strike that could cripple supply chains and hamper a stressed US economy still emerging from the pandemic.
The Retail Industry Leaders Association said a rail strike would “cause enormous disruption to the flow of goods across the country,” even though retail stores are well-stocked for the crucial Christmas shopping season.
“Luckily, this year’s holiday gifts have already hit store shelves. But a disruption in rail transportation poses a significant challenge to getting items like perishable food items and e-commerce shipments delivered on time, and will no doubt add to inflationary pressures already weighing on the US economy,” said Jess Dankert, of the group representing more than 200 major retailers.
The unions that rejected their deals have agreed to return to the negotiating table to try to reach a new deal before a new strike deadline early next month. But those talks have stalled because the railroads refuse to consider adding paid sick time to what was already on offer.
It seems increasingly likely that Congress will have to step in to resolve the dispute. Legislators have the power to impose the terms of the contract if both parties cannot reach an agreement. Hundreds of business groups have urged Congress and President Joe Biden to stand ready to intervene if necessary.
Workers frustrated with demanding hours and deep job cuts in the industry pushed to reject these contracts because they do not address key quality of life concerns for workers. The agreements for the engineers and conductors included a promise to try to improve the schedule of regular days off and to further negotiate the details of those schedules with each railway. Unions representing engineers and drivers also received three days off a year without pay to attend to medical needs as long as they were scheduled at least 30 days in advance.
The railways also lost their bid to reduce crew size to one person as part of the negotiations. But drivers in the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transport Workers narrowly rejected the deal with about 51% voting against it. A smaller division of the SMART-TD union representing about 1,300 gardeners approved the deal.
“The ball is now in the field of the railways. Let’s see what they do. They can resolve this at the bargaining table,” said Jeremy Ferguson, president of SMART-TD. “But the railroad executives who constantly complain about government interference and badmouth regulators and Congress now want Congress to do business for them.”
The railroads maintain that agreements with unions should closely follow recommendations made this summer by a special panel of arbitrators appointed by Biden. That’s part of the reason they don’t want to offer paid sick time. In addition, the railways say unions have agreed over the years to forgo paid sick leave in favor of higher wages and strong short-term disability benefits.
Unions say railways should be offering paid sick leave to workers a long time ago, and the pandemic highlighted the need to do so.
The group negotiating on behalf of the railways said Monday that unions that rejected their agreements should not expect to receive more than is recommended by the President’s Board of Emergency Arbitrators. The National Carriers Conference Committee said companies could start to be affected by the threat of a strike even before the deadline because railroads will start cutting shipments of dangerous chemicals and perishable cargo days before the deadline. .
“A national rail strike would severely affect the economy and the public. Now the continuing near-term threat of one will require freight railways and passenger carriers soon to start taking responsible steps to secure the network safely ahead of any deadlines,” the railways said.
It’s unclear what Congress could do given the deep political divisions in Washington, DC, and a single lawmaker could delay a resolution. But the head of the Association of American Railroads trade group, Ian Jefferies, said that “if the remaining unions do not agree to a deal, Congress must be prepared to act and avoid a disastrous $2 billion a day impact on our economy.” .
Republicans may try to force a deal that includes only what the President’s Emergency Board recommended, while Democrats, who still have tight control of both the House and Senate during this period of inactivity, might be willing to force the railways to make additional concessions.
The unions that voted Monday represent more than half of the roughly 115,000 rail workers involved in the contract dispute with Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, BNSF, Kansas City Southern, CSX and other railroads.