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Key freight rail union rejects deal, increasing strike risk


Freight train cars at a rail yard in Atlanta, Sept. 15, 2022. Members of a union that primarily represents freight rail conductors have narrowly voted down a tentative labor contract, their union said Monday, Nov. 21.

By Noam Scheiber


Members of a union that primarily represents freight rail conductors have narrowly voted down a tentative labor contract, their union said Monday.


If the two sides cannot reach another tentative agreement by early December, the rail workers could strike — an outcome that industry officials have estimated could cost the economy more than $2 billion per day.


Roughly 51% of the voting members of the union, SMART Transportation Division, rejected the agreement. Members of a second large union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which primarily represents engineers, voted to approve the agreement, with 53.5% in favor.


“SMART-TD members with their votes have spoken, it’s now back to the bargaining table for our operating craft members,” the SMART-TD president, Jeremy Ferguson, said in a statement. “This can all be settled through negotiations and without a strike. A settlement would be in the best interests of the workers, the railroads, shippers and the American people.”


Ian Jefferies, chief executive of the Association of American Railroads, which represents major carriers, said in a statement that “railroads stand ready to reach new deals” but that “the window continues to narrow as deadlines rapidly approach.”


The proposal, reached in September with help from the Biden administration, covered more than 100,000 members of a dozen rail industry unions and would have raised wages by nearly 25% over the five years that began in 2020, when the last contract expired.


But rail workers have said their top concerns are the grueling, unpredictable schedules that take a toll on their personal lives and their health. Many have complained that extended time on the road and long stretches of on-call work make it difficult to see a doctor for an illness or injury, or to be present at family milestones like a child’s birthday.


Rail carriers say that employees can generally attend to these needs by taking paid vacation. The workers say their employers limit their options for taking paid time off in practice — for example, by narrowing the windows in which they can take vacation or rejecting a requested personal day.


The tentative agreement would have allowed workers to take off up to three times each year for a routine medical appointment without risking disciplinary action, but many workers said that the concession was insufficient and that it did not address the deeper issue underlying their concerns: a business model that seeks to minimize labor costs and that results in chronic understaffing.


The Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that regulates freight rail, has estimated that large freight carriers employed roughly 30% fewer workers this year than they did six years ago.


Before the conductors union voted down the agreement, three smaller unions that would be covered by the agreement voted against it. That in itself could have led to an industrywide strike because rail workers are unlikely to cross the picket lines of other unions.


Skeptical conductors and engineers have pointed out that the tentative agreement could have worsened staffing problems and made their schedules even less predictable by allowing the carriers to apply a staffing change they have long sought.


Under the current system, conductors and engineers fall to the bottom of a list of available crews when they complete a trip, then gradually work their way up to the top, at which point they are sent out again.


If a co-worker calls in sick, a worker from a group known as an extra board can be substituted so that the other conductors and engineers do not move up the list more quickly and can maintain some predictability in their schedule.


Workers say cuts to the extra board in recent years have eroded this predictability. The tentative agreement made it possible for the carriers to establish so-called self-supporting pools that eliminate the use of substitute workers, although it appeared to give the unions some formal say over whether to do so.


“The self-protecting pools is a really, really big one,” said Michael Paul Lindsey, an Idaho-based member of the engineers union, alluding to the reasons that many workers opposed the deal.


Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh, who in September helped broker the agreement that the unions voted down, said in an interview with CNN this month that Congress would have to intervene to avoid a strike if the two sides could not resolve their differences. It was unclear from the interview if he was urging intervention or simply intended to lay out possible options under the law.


Congressional involvement could take a variety of forms. Congress could extend the so-called cooling-off period in which the two sides negotiate without a strike, or require the two sides to enter arbitration. It could also pass legislation enacting a proposal issued over the summer by a presidential emergency board, whose time-off provisions were less generous than the agreement just voted down, or mandate the more recent agreement itself.


Lindsey said Walsh’s pronouncement angered his co-workers, who believed they should be allowed to strike if the industry did not make sufficient concessions. He said many workers suspected that the administration had been primarily concerned with preventing the labor dispute from boiling over before this month’s midterm elections rather than addressing their concerns.


“People feel completely sold out,” Lindsey said, adding, “Now that it’s after the election, there’s going to be no accountability.”


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