The stakes couldn’t be higher. The rail freight industry, which is responsible for transporting approximately 40% of long-haul goods, is essential to the country’s economy, including the necessary supplies for electricity and drinking water, not to mention the products like food and gifts for the holiday season. For this reason, Congress would face immense pressure to intervene if a strike appeared imminent.
Democrats have so far resisted calls from some GOP lawmakers and the railroad industry to force both parties to accept recommendations from an emergency council appointed by President Joe Biden. This compromise would raise workers’ wages by 24% over five years, but did not include paid sick leave, a major sticking point in the negotiations.
The Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen initially said its “cooling-off” period – during which it could not strike – would end on November 19, like another union which had previously rejected its contract. But the unique language of its agreement with the railways allows the period to end on December 4.
“As the president has said for months, any shutdown would be totally unacceptable,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday. “It is the responsibility of the parties concerned to solve this problem. Any idea that kicking Congress will bring about a quick or favorable outcome is deeply flawed. This is our view from here.
While any strikes take place after the midterm elections, even the possibility of such an economic calamity happening on Biden’s watch puts Democrats’ credibility in handling the economy at risk. Just weeks ago, when a compromise brokered by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh temporarily averted the strike threat, the White House said it was confident the problem was solved.
“It is not clear whether the negotiators who were negotiating on [workers’] name knew where the red lines were” when it came to furloughs, said former Treasury Department official Christine McDaniel, now a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center. “Why didn’t they talk about it during the negotiations, especially when you have the secretary of labor – a member of the president’s cabinet – involved in the negotiations? This is really the time to really clarify what your red lines are.
Walsh declined to comment on the latest vote.
So far, six unions – representing around 20% of the 125,000 workers covered by the proposed contracts – have voted to ratify their agreements. Two unions, representing around 25% of workers, have now voted no. But just one union voting to walk off the job could trigger a nationwide shutdown due to the reluctance of other workers to cross a picket line.
The railroads and their unions tried for three years to negotiate a new contract, eventually forcing Biden to appoint counsel to find a solution. This solution is part of the contract negotiation mix, although many of the unions involved are negotiating for more. A threat of closure on September 16 was averted when three unions that had not yet reached a tentative agreement with the railways agreed one in the early morning hours of September 15.
None of the remaining votes scheduled until the end of November are a foregone conclusion, but rank-and-file workers have expressed widespread dissatisfaction with their working conditions, including longer periods away from home, working hours extended on-call time that could require them to return to work on their insufficient paid sick days and days off. They say the Biden-backed board proposal, along with the carriers’ proposed contracts, don’t do enough to address their concerns.
“Our members are overwhelmed,” said Ron Behrens, general secretary-treasurer of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen’s largest affiliate, Union Pacific General Committee 88, noting that rail carrier Union Pacific just reported a profit of $1.9 billion in the quarter that ended September 1. 30.
“It’s hard for members to accept when they don’t want to give us an extra day or two of sick leave,” Behrens said.
Union Pacific spokeswoman Kristen South said it was “wrong” that railroad employees weren’t missing work, adding that “no Union Pacific employee has been terminated for missing a single day of work, and we are actively helping employees who encounter difficulties that require time off.” She said the railroad was working with union leaders to pilot “a work/rest program that we hope to learn from and implement more broadly.”
Another issue for members of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen: cost-of-living adjustments for workers who live in expensive states like California.
“Our guys are hired by the railroads to make sure no one dies… at a crossing or dies on the tracks from train accidents,” said Doug Dawley, general vice president of the the union’s second affiliate, Burlington Northern General Committee 12. “That’s how important it is, what we’re doing. And yet, our guys make less money than restaurant servers in some parts of the country.
The independent, cross-union Railroad Workers United group is organizing workers to vote against the tentative agreements.
“It’s very telling that these workers are prepared to vote no to this contract,” said Ross Grooters, a member of both Railroad Workers United and the 25,000-member Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. He said the two unions that have voted no so far “are not subject to the worst provisions [of the tentative agreements] …so it’s very telling that people who aren’t even feeling the worst effects of this contract are willing to vote ‘no’. It’s a strong signal. »
Freight railways say their workers get three to five weeks paid vacation, partial pay on short-term disability and the freedom to ‘tag’ – temporarily remove themselves from the employee roster available at any time and for any reason. They also say federal law limits the number of hours railroad employees can work and guarantees some rest time.
The “recommendations from Biden’s board remain part of an agreement,” the coalition that represents the railroads in the negotiations, the National Carriers Conference Committee, said in a statement last week after the Way Maintenance Brotherhood Employees Division issued new demands. “Now is not the time to introduce new demands that revive the prospect of a railway strike.”
The timing of union votes favors the prospect that lawmakers will again extend the cooling-off period to allow talks to proceed without the threat of a strike. Indeed, Congress will not have returned from its post-election recess until five days before the expiration of the current cooling-off period.
“The alternative is to let Congress write our deal, and I’m not really comfortable letting them do that,” Behren said. “We have pro-labour congressmen and senators, but how adept are they at drafting a labor agreement, you know?”
“None of us want to put the economy at risk,” he added. “But…it gets to a point where you’ve gotten everything you can get this round.”
The workers themselves recognize that the option of congressional intervention has left the possibility of a real strike virtually out of reach.
“A strike is not really likely,” Dawley said. “It would be an opportunity for employees to show they’re upset, but it wouldn’t be something where we could do that for a week or 10 days because that wouldn’t be allowed. We do not control this.
“The railways know it, and we know it too,” he added.
National leaders of the Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen did not respond to a request for comment.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers voted overwhelmingly in favor of the strike in September, when it became the first union whose members rejected the contract their leaders had accepted. Instead of going on strike, the union leadership extended the cooling-off period to allow more time to negotiate – a move that has led at least one local leader to criticize management for “undermining[ing] the collective voices of all Class 1 railroad workers.”
Josh Hartford, an official with the Machinists and Aerospace Union, replied that the decision had been difficult, but strategic: “Historically, Congress has gotten involved whenever there has been a real threat of a shutdown. ‘a rail,’ he wrote to the disgruntled. official. “When Congress gets involved, we lose.”
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