Railroad Workers Appear Ready to Strike After Rejecting Contract Recommendations

Railroad unions continue their slow creep along the path to a settlement — or strike — in contract negotiations covering 115,000 workers. The President Biden convened the Presidential Emergency Board to make recommendations for a settlement. Many rail workers claim they have failed and are willing to strike to win more.

The PEB recommended 22 per cent increases over the five-year contract, which dates back to 2020. This would be one of the highest wage increases rail workers have seen in decades. But they are offset by increases in health care costs — and come in the midst of high inflation.

The PEB also refused to touch almost any of the unions’ demands on work rules and conditions, either denying them outright or suggesting that the unions return to the slow negotiation and arbitration process they have already languished in since November 2019. Unions have been demanding a sick leave policy — rail workers have no sick days — and the PEB refused them. The PEB also refused a position. the strict attendance policies have infuriated many rail workers.

“By not addressing these issues and this generalized discontent among the workforce, the PEB has acted irresponsibly, their recommendations doing little to nothing to stem the tide of discontent nor address the ongoing mass exodus of workers from the industry,” said Jason Doering, general secretary of the cross-union solidarity caucus Railroad Workers United.

A Big Negotiation

The rail negotiations are one of the largest instances of private-sector bargaining in the U.S., in one of the country’s most heavily unionized industries. The table includes the major Class I freight railroads as well 13 rail unions. They are divided by craft and have a range of sizes from hundreds to tens-of thousands of members.

A national rail shut down, which has not happened since the early 1990s would have a significant economic impact.

The recommendations of the PEB are not binding. Unions and railroads must agree to their terms. The leadership of the rail unions are now seeking to turn the PEB’s proposals into a deal.

Although the unions did briefly operate as one unit (albeit in two distinct coalitions) during the recent stages of bargaining the unity has not held up since the PEB issued its recommendations. Three unions affiliated with the Machinists — the Transportation Communications Union, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, and IAM District 19 — announced a tentative deal with the carriers on August 29. According to a letter sent by the union to Machinists rail members, the tentative agreement matches the PEB’s recommendations. The three unions represent 15,000 out of 115,000 rail workers who are currently in negotiations.

Two of the largest rail unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Sheet Metal Workers’ Transportation Division (SMART-TD), already held post-PEB negotiations with the railroads, though they did not yet reach a tentative agreement. These unions represent engineers and conductors. Workers in these “operating crafts,” as they are known, have a number of non-economic issues that were left unresolved by the government’s proposal, including the draconian scheduling policies that led the two unions to issue a strike threat last year.

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees held three days of negotiations without reaching an agreement with railroads. One of the BMWE’s core issues is that many members travel long distances on work assignments without being fully reimbursed for travel, food, and lodging expenses.

Survey Hints at no Vote

How do rail workers feel about this proposed deal?

Railroad Workers United, a cross union caucus of rank and file rail workers, conducted a survey that found overwhelming opposition to unions signing agreements that were based on the PEB recommendations. The online survey was distributed to networks of rail workers and received 3,162 responses.

More than nine in ten respondents said they would vote down a tentative agreement based on the PEB’s recommendations.

When asked if railroad workers should strike once released from the “cooling-off” period required by the Railway Labor Act, 96 percent said they should.

Before the PEB made its recommendations, strike votes were already being held by two unions: the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE). BLET members voted 99.5% in favor to authorize a strike before PEB announced its proposals. The BMWE had sent out ballots prior to the recommendations and was expected to complete its strike vote this week. The union has yet to release the results.

What’s Next?

The time period they are allowed to strike is decreasing for 10 unions which have not reached tentative deals. After almost three years of negotiations, the RLA has made it clear that they are likely to strike as soon as September 16.

These unions will continue to negotiate with railroad carriers and could reach a deal at any moment. Once they’ve reached a tentative agreement, rail unions typically agree to an extended cooling-down period to hold ratification votes, which could drag the clock out even longer.

The midterms also loom over the rail union leadership’s strategy in these negotiations. A Congress controlled by the Democrats is viewed as a much friendlier mediator — or enforcer — of labor peace than the threat of a deal forced on them by a Republican majority.

If the RWU survey is any indication of how rail workers feel about the government’s recommendations, any vote on a contract that’s closely based on PEB proposals could be met with significant energy to vote it down. A no vote would send union leaders back to negotiations and potentially force a strike on the railroads.