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Railroad Union Votes Down Tentative Deal - Service Unaffected For Now

October 11, 2022 Kevin Baxter

Orange Train

In spite of the tentative agreements reached last month between Class I railroads and rail worker labor union leadership, the possibility of a work stoppage remains in sight with one union's membership rejecting the terms yesterday. Members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance Way Employes (BMWE) Division - the third largest railroad union in the U.S.  -  voted just 43% in favor of the new deal, and thus 57% opposed, with a bit more than half of its 23,000 members participating. While all 12 unions must agree to contract terms to avoid a possible strike or other stoppage, membership did agree to maintain the status quo until Nov. 19 - after Congress returns to Washington, meaning railroad service will be unaffected at least until then. BMWE leadership indicated the main sticking point for its membership who voted down the agreement was the lack of paid sick time off - an issue especially thrown into focus during the past two years of the pandemic - also noting members are generally discouraged and upset with working conditions. Quality of life issues were the primary barrier to the original agreement, which was only reached hours before a potential strike in mid-September. A joint union statement at the time pointed to exemptions for “time off for certain medical events" including routine and preventative medical care, hospitalizations and surgical procedures, as well as provisions for voluntary assigned days off for members working in thru freight service - all those changes were in addition to a 24% raise in salary and $5,000 in bonuses for the five year deal.

What Lies Ahead

BMWE leadership says they'll re-enter negotiations with the railroads in attempts to reach a new agreement. Four other unions representing railroad workers have ratified the existing tentative contract, while the remaining seven - including the two largest unions - have votes scheduled in the next month-plus, during the BMWE's status quo period. Here is the updated status of the agreements with each union and projected ratification vote dates as of today:

  • TCU – Ratified
  • BRC – Ratified
  • IBEW – Ratified
  • ATDA – Ratified
  • BMWED – Not ratified / status quo maintained
  • NCFO – October 13
  • SMART-M – October 14
  • BRS – October 26
  • IBB – November 11
  • BLET – November 17
  • SMART-TD – November 17
  • IAM – no later than November 20

Even if all 11 remaining unions have ratified the earlier agreement though, if the BMWE does not have an agreed upon deal, the others would not report to work, leading to a railroad shutdown. That makes those negotiations key to averting a strike. Any concessions from the National Carriers Conference Committee - which represents railroad leadership - gained in the separate negotiations would apply to all the other unions as well, as part of a "me too" arrangement. As for whether those other unions will ratify the deal, experts suggest the down vote for this agreement shows there are plenty of union members looking for additional concessions, certainly suggesting the possibility of more ratification failures. And if there is no full agreement, the Association of American Railroads (AAR), says damage from a work stoppage would be upwards of $2 billion a day - with about one-third of all domestic freight and thousands of passengers suddenly looking for railroad alternatives. So while no stoppage will occur until at least the second half of November, the possibility of a strike remains.

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