Biggest Railroad Unions Count Votes as Threat of Strike Looms

Date: Monday, November 21, 2022
Source: Wall Street Journal

Two of the country’s largest railroad unions will reveal Monday whether their members voted to accept a new wage deal brokered by the White House, or reject it and move closer to a strike that could disrupt the flow of goods around the country.

The unions representing engineers and conductors—SMART Transportation Division and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen—are the final two of the 12 unions reporting the ratification of votes in what has been a contentious and protracted labor dispute.

Workers of seven of the unions have ratified their agreements. The three unions whose members have rejected their tentative agreements are back at the negotiating table with the railroads for a revised deal. If they don’t come to a new agreement, workers would be allowed to strike as early as Dec. 4.

Union Pacific Corp., CSX Corp. and other freight railroads move about 40% of U.S. long-distance cargo and serve the agricultural, energy and manufacturing sectors. Even a short strike could lead to diversions and cascade into delays and congestion, pushing back recovery in some supply chains. Trade groups representing grain and feed producers and chemical shippers have asked Congress to intervene to prevent a labor strike.

Railroad workers who voted against their agreement said wages weren’t the reason for their decision. Their grievance is about working conditions. They say punitive attendance policies and insufficient staffing have left them overworked. Railroads, which furloughed thousands of staff during the pandemic, say they have struggled to hire enough workers when demand recovered and adopted attendance policies to manage absences.

“Neither side gets everything at once in a compromised product. There are certainly numerous things the railroads didn’t get out of the deal,” said Ian Jefferies, president of the Association of American Railroads, a trade group. He said the proposed wage increases were above what the railroads had offered, and changes in work rules that the railroads sought weren’t included.

The tentative agreement offers railroad workers a 24% increase in wages over the five years, dating from 2020 through 2024. The deal allows for one additional paid day off, on top of existing vacation and paid time off. Union leaders at BLET and SMART TD said they managed to get changes to attendance policies included in addition to the recommendations of a White House-appointed panel, though some members said these gains aren’t enough.

Some workers said they are resentful that railroad executives don’t adequately value the contributions of their labor. “They are so brazen to the fact that they don’t care about the working people,” said Lesly Wilterding, a signal maintainer based in Fort Scott, Kan. Mr. Wilterding voted earlier to reject the tentative agreement presented by his union, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen. Members of the union overall voted against the deal.

The railroads say they have made changes to their attendance policies based on employee feedback. “Work remains to make our jobs attractive to today’s employees—especially the unscheduled, ‘on call’ jobs,” said Kristen South, a Union Pacific spokeswoman, adding that the company was testing a new work-rest schedule.

The U.S. economy would lose $2 billion each day railroad workers are on strike, the AAR estimated. The country’s economic output averages around $63 billion each day.

If the tentative agreements aren’t ratified, the leaders of BLET and SMART-TD will go back to the bargaining table for a revised deal with an early December deadline. The two groups represent around 60,000 railroad workers, more than half the 115,000 workers covered by the current negotiations.

Congress, given its power under the Railway Labor Act, also may intervene to impose a settlement on the two sides to prevent or shorten any work stoppage. The last national rail strike, in 1991, lasted about 24 hours before Congress passed and President George H.W. Bush signed legislation ordering the workers back to their jobs and setting up an arbitration process to resolve a dispute over staffing.

In September, Sens. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) and Richard Burr (R., N.C.) proposed a bill that would impose the contract terms brokered by the Biden-appointed panel if parties don’t reach agreement by the deadline that would have allowed workers to go on strike. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont blocked the bill at that time.

“The engine guys are too important. What you do is too important to the economy of this country,” said Dennis Pierce, president of the BLET, at a town hall meeting with his members on Nov. 9. “That is my personal opinion as to why Congress was not going to let us walk off the job.”

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