The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way employees, who maintain and build tracks and bridges, voted down a national tentative deal with freight rail carriers.
Just under 12,000 of the union’s 23,900 freight rail workers voted, the union announced October 10, with 56 percent voting against the deal.
Leaders said they’re hoping to return to the bargaining table. The union is delaying any strike threat until November 19, at the earliest.
In a statement, BMWE President Tony Cardwell attributed the rejection to members’ feeling that “management holds no regard for their quality of life, illustrated by their stubborn reluctance to provide a higher quantity of paid time off, especially for sickness.”
Railroad workers do not get paid sick days. The Teamsters-affiliated BMWE, part of a bargaining coalition with the Sheet Metal Workers’ Mechanical Division, had pushed for 13 sick days annually, but the carriers refused to budge.
BMWE Rank and File United is a caucus within the union. released a statement Encourage members to organize pickets to gather information and push for a stronger deal. “We must stand together in showing the carriers, politicians, and the world that we are not done. Our demands have not been met,” read the statement.
“Our union leadership only has power at the bargaining table if we give it to them.”
It’s Not Over
The rejection marks a major turnaround — political leaders were acting like the deal was sealed.
Just 20 hours prior to a national strike deadline on September 15, Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh had announced a tentative agreement between the National Carriers’ Conference Committee and the two largest rail unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Sheet Metal Workers’ Transportation Division (SMART-TD).
As Politico reported, Walsh said, “It’s like, Holy Christ: The magnitude of what would have happened. We’ll never fully understand, thank God.”
The agreements were ratified by four of the dozen unions participating in the negotiations: the railroad electricians (IBEW), train dispatchers (ATDA), the Transportation Communications Union representing the clerical worker, and the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen which represents workers who inspect and maintain train cars. Both are affiliated to Machinists.
Machinists District Lodge 19 members rejected their deal last month. Since then, the union has announced a tentative agreement. Reece Murtagh, a local lodge leader, announced a new tentative agreement. wrote a scathing letter to the national leadership regarding its handling of the strike vote.
Members of SMART-TD and BLET begin voting this week. These two unions, which are composed of conductors/engineers, account for half the 115,000 members of the Class I freight railroad unions.
These votes could be affected by the news from the BMWE. Jack, a SMART-TD member out of Illinois who asked not to use his last name, thinks that “seeing another union take a stand will show everyone it’s possible to fight back.” But he says members are still nervous about Congressional intervention leading to a worse deal.
Pushing back any possible strike until after November’s midterm elections eases the pressure on politicians. A Congressional intervention in November would still be by a Democratic-controlled Congress, even if Republicans win majorities in the House or Senate, since newly elected Senators and Representatives don’t take office until January.
The “no” vote partly reflects pent-up anger over the increasingly grueling conditions on the job. As the rail employers have embraced Precision Scheduled Railroading, they’ve slashed the workforce, increasing the workload and hours of the workers who remain.
According to the Surface Transportation Board (STP), freight railroads have lost more than 20% of their maintenance-of way jobs in the last six years and more than 50,000 jobs overall since 2000.
“I’m not surprised,” said Deven Mantz of BMWE Lodge 1326 in Minot, North Dakota, when he learned the contract had been voted down. “People are pissed off, and they want somewhere to direct it. If we’re not careful, they’re going to direct it at our union. So our union leadership needs to step up and direct that anger at the carriers, who caused it.”
Sick time and health care
The September 15 deal, which was brokered by the White House between railroads and SMART TD and the BLET, and SMART TD, addressed two main issues: health care costs as well as time off for medical appointments.
According to press reports, the deal would result in three sick days for railroad workers. The actual language was revealed to be a much more than just sick time. It was a heavily restricted, unpaid time off for routine and preventive medical appointments on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays with at least 30 days’ notice. There were no attendance penalties for hospitalizations or surgeries.
The two unions held a 15-day “question and answer” period before sending the tentative agreement for a contract vote. Many members were immediately upset by the terms. Ross Grooters in Iowa, a BLET member and activist for Railroad Workers United was one of them. tweeted, “I don’t need questions answered. I need for all of us to VOTE NO!”
The agreements did not apply to the BMWE, third-largest railroad union, as the union had already reached a tentative agreement with carriers on September 10. As they waited to vote on their deal, members closely followed them.
September 20 was the first day of voting by mail. To answer questions, the union hosted multiple Zoom calls on different carriers. Q&A document This includes wages, bonuses, time off, and how they are paid.
The BMWE’s tentative agreement largely tracked with recommendations made by a Presidential Emergency Board in August, including 22 percent wage increases over the life of the agreement (extending retroactively to 2020 and running through December 31, 2024), and adding one additional paid day off per year — but no sick time.
The deal included an annual $1,000 bonus for each of the five years, and capped workers’ monthly health care premium payments to $398.97 per month.
Travel allowances and expenses away from home were another major issue in negotiations. The majority of BMWE members travel to work. These allowances, in addition to compensating travel costs, are an important source for income.
The national agreement established basic standards but left details up to each carrier. Those side agreements weren’t all available at the start of voting, which may have contributed to the no vote. Some members felt they were voting “blind,” though by the end of the ratification period each carrier’s side deal had been released to the membership.
Rail workers, including members from BMWE, organized grassroots pickets at freight stations across the country in September after the first strike deadline.
In Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas, North Dakota, Idaho, Oregon, and West Virginia, workers stood with handmade signs that read “We Demand More” and “We Are Not Done Yet.” It looks like they were right.