The risk of a disruptive strike is growing after another union voted down a labor agreement between rail workers and railroads that would end months of negotiations over pay and working conditions. The deadline for the agreement’s approval is just weeks away.
Workers at a dozen unions involved in the railroad negotiations have until Dec. 9 to approve the agreement (which has already been approved by both the unions’ leadership and the railways), or the United States could face the prospect of rail strikes that would devastate the country’s supply chains and create economic chaos right before one of the busiest times of the year. That date is when a so-called “cooling off” period ends and workers are allowed to strike.
The tentative agreement in question, which would feature the biggest pay bumps in the last four decades, has now been batted down by three of the unions involved and approved by seven. The latest to vote against it was the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers on Monday, although it only represents a few hundred workers. Nevertheless, the agreement must be approved by all of the involved unions for the deal to be finalized, meaning that workers at all of the unions need to vote in favor of the deal.
The two biggest unions involved in the negotiations, Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers-Transportation Division and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, combined represent more than 62,000 workers and will vote next week to decide whether to approve the tentative agreement.
If all of the unions can’t approve the deal before Dec. 9, Congress might end up intervening to either push back that deadline or force a deal on the railway workers.
Putting a monkey wrench in plans to reach an agreement is the renegade Railroad Workers United, which is pushing for workers of the various unions to vote against the agreement in hopes of even more measures to improve working conditions, according to Politico.
“There’s a sense of hopelessness amongst a number of working railroaders. The goal of our campaign is to basically empower people to just vote ‘no’ if they actually believe that this thing is not good. Don’t be conned into voting for something that you really don’t want,” said Ron Kaminkow, an RWU leader who is in a union that plans to vote next week.
Negotiations began more than two years ago. Rail workers have complained about understaffing, especially given that, during the past six years alone, some 45,000 employees have been laid off.
In July, given the severity of the situation, the White House approved the formation of an emergency board to help alleviate a dispute between railroads and the unions representing rail workers after contract negotiations came up short.
Then, in September, a tentative agreement was reached with the unions. The agreement was helped along by the involvement of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. President Joe Biden has styled himself as a pro-labor president, so coming to an agreement and sidestepping a strike was a priority for the White House.
The agreement under consideration would provide workers with an immediate 14% pay bump and back pay for the past two years. The workers would also get $1,000 cash bonuses each year. The salary increases would total 24% through the five-year contract.
However, a strike is not imminent for a few more weeks. In the meantime, the unions that rejected the deal are hoping for continued discussions before the cooling-off period lapses. The IBB said after it voted down the tentative agreement that it “fully expects to continue negotiating further toward a satisfactory contract in the future with the [National Carriers’ Conference Committee].”
A strike would be a devastating blow to supply chains, which became historically frayed during the pandemic.
A railway strike would “dramatically impact economic output” and could cost more than $2 billion per day, according to a report by the Association of American Railroads from September. Failure to reach an agreement could idle more than 7,000 trains daily and trigger retail product shortages, among other troubles — all just days before Christmas.
“There’s going to be lessons learned going into the next round of bargaining about how we … control the narrative a little bit better — and I don’t mean that in the propaganda way, I mean making sure that people have the facts,” Greg Regan, the president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, said.
“This was, for all intents and purposes, the first major national bargaining round in which social media reached this place it is right now,” he said.
If negotiations don’t pan out by the Dec. 9 deadline, though, a strike would not necessarily follow. Congress has the ability to step in and remedy the situation, although that would be bad optics for the Democrats and the administration, given their commitment to supporting organized labor.
Rail strikes differ from other strikes because labor relations are governed by the Railway Labor Act of 1926 rather than the National Labor Relations Act.
That law means that Congress can step in during airline or railway strikes and force the Presidential Emergency Board’s recommendations or extend the cooling-off period even further, pushing back the deadline for work stoppages or strikes.
In total, unions representing some 115,000 railroad workers are involved in the negotiation process.