Threat of railway strike rises as members of another union reject proposed labor deal

New York
CNN Business

Rank and file members of another railroad union have rejected an interim labor agreement, a move that further raises the odds that U.S. freight rail workers will go on strike next month.

The Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen voted against September’s tentative agreement, according to results announced Wednesday. The vote was 2,810, or 60.5%, against the proposed four-year deal, and 1,820, or 39.2%, for it. The union represents more than 6,000 employees of the country’s major freight railways who install, repair and maintain the signaling systems used to direct trains.

“For the first time in my memory, BRS members voted not to ratify a national accord, and with the highest turnout in BRS history,” said Michael Baldwin, president of BRS. the BRS, in a press release.

Earlier this month, rank-and-file members of the District Brotherhood of Way Maintenance Employees (BMWED), which represents about 23,000 way maintenance workers, voted to reject a work agreement similar, paving the way for a possible strike as soon as 19 November.

The National Carriers Conference Committee, which bargains on behalf of the railways with all unions, issued a statement saying it was “disappointed” with the results of the vote, but said that due to the period of current thinking “Failure to ratify does not mean current risk of immediate service disruption.

It’s unclear what day the flagmen’s union could go on strike, union president Michael Baldwin told CNN. Under the law that controls the railroad workforce, unions can go back on strike after Congress returns to session for five days. But there’s no telling when that clock will start ticking if Congress sits only briefly before a Thanksgiving break. He said his union and the BMWED may not be able to go on strike until early December.

Labor relations in the railroads are subject to a different labor law than that which governs workers in most American companies. Railroad unions face limits on when they can strike and cannot act during cooling-off periods following a “no” vote by members. Congress can also prevent or end a strike by extending a cooling-off period during which unions cannot strike, or by imposing a contract on union members.

Ahead of the September strike deadline, many business groups were urging Congress to act. However, Democratic leaders have expressed reluctance to go against unions and order them to stay on the job.

Even if the Democrats lost control of one or both houses of Congress in the midterm elections, they would still have legislative control during the so-called lame duck session that would continue through the end of the year. year.

Baldwin also said he’s also concerned that Congress will order unions to stay on the job, either by imposing a new contract close to what the railroads want or by extending the cool-down period until the end of the week. next year.

“I personally don’t think Congress will allow anyone to shut down the economy and its supply chains,” he said.

Flaggers’ union rank-and-file members are mostly upset about the lack of paid sick leave, Baldwin said.

“That’s the resounding message we heard everywhere,” he said. “Our guys have been working through the pandemic. Employers quarantined them at home and they weren’t paid.

In the past, the rail unions accepted higher pay in return for no sick days, except for extended medical absences. The Interim Agreements do not alter these provisions.

Members of six of the railroad’s smaller unions have ratified their contracts despite the lack of sick leave. But it looks like this could be a sticking point in hammering out a deal that BMWED and Signalmen membership will accept.

After BMWED rejected their tentative deal, union leaders proposed adding paid sick leave in a bargaining session, only for management to reject the motion out of hand. Baldwin said he would make the same offer at the negotiating table.

“I anticipate they’re going to tell me no too,” he said. “They denied us the opportunity to negotiate in good faith for three years. That’s not going to change now.

Although these unions are smaller than the two that represent drivers and engineers, a strike by one of the 12 freight rail unions would be honored by the others and shut down operations of the major freight railways in the country.

This, in turn, would create massive problems for the US economy, worsening still-struggling supply chains and triggering widespread bottlenecks and shortages. About 30% of US freight, measured by weight and distance traveled, moves by rail. Prices for goods, from gasoline to food to cars, could skyrocket if trains stop. Additionally, factories may be forced to close temporarily due to parts shortages. Goods that consumers want to buy during the holiday season could be missing from store shelves.

Railway unions nearly went on strike last month before last-minute deals were reached on September 15 with unions representing drivers and engineers. The tentative agreements followed a marathon 20-hour negotiating session that included direct intervention from President Joe Biden and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.

New contracts pending for all unions include an immediate 14% raise with salary arrears dating back to 2020, and wage increases totaling 24% over the four-year term of the contracts, which run from 2020 to 2024 They also give union members bonus money of $1,000 a year.

In total, back wages and bonuses will give union members an average payout of $11,000 per worker once the agreement is ratified.

But the deals were difficult to negotiate not because of financial terms, but because of work rules that unions said had brought engineers and operators to breaking point. Staff shortages had forced crew members to be on call seven days a week, ready to report for duty on short notice.

The conductors’ and engineers’ unions won changes to the existing rules in final negotiations to avoid a strike. Union leaders said that without these changes, members would not have ratified the agreement.

But there are fears that anger over the existing rules could prompt some members to vote against a new contract to vent their frustration – even though the rules have been changed.

Union officials are also concerned that the “no” votes from BMWED unions and signal workers are a sign that the contract will be rejected by conductors and rank-and-file engineers. A union official told CNN Business after the BMWED vote last week that the outcome of those votes was now a “knock toss.”

Baldwin said railroad downsizing in recent years and the resulting increased workload for remaining workers has angered his members, and that’s another factor that makes it difficult approval of agreements.

“We have a lot of members who are unhappy with employers, with good reason,” he said.

The anger of the base unions was not only expressed against the railways. Union members working in other industries have recently been reluctant to endorse deals, even recommended by their leaders. Although most union contracts are ratified, there have been high profile examples of union members voting ‘no’.

About 10,000 members of the United Auto Workers at agricultural equipment maker John Deere went on strike last fall after they rejected a tentative agreement. This rejected offer included immediate increases in their base salary of 5% to 6%, and additional salary increases later in the contract which could have increased the average salary by approximately 20% over the life of six years. of the contract. And there was a cost-of-living adjustment that would give workers extra pay based on future inflation.

But more than 90% of UAW members at Deere voted no and went on strike, then remained on strike after rejecting a subsequent offer. They finally returned to work after five weeks following a third vote on a similar package.

Strikers at cereal maker Kellogg (K) also rejected a tentative deal and decided to stay on strike in December before finally agreeing to a contract a few weeks later.

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