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Why May a Railroad Strike Occur After All?

October 31, 2022 Kevin Baxter

Empty Railroad Tracks

A month and a half after an apparent deal between railroad workers and management averted a strike, the picture looks a bit less rosy. The eleventh hour tentative agreement reached by union leadership and Class I railroads always had another hurdle to clear - ratification by rank-and-file members of the 12 organizations representing rail workers. And that hurdle looms taller as now two of those unions have voted down the agreement, the latest being the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS) last week, following the Brotherhood of Maintenance Way Employes (BMWE) no vote earlier in October. The margin of the latest vote - roughly 60-40 against - is similar to the 57% of BWME voters who voted in opposition. The decision by these union members not to ratify means a work stoppage could occur in early December, based on the ending of an agreed upon cooling off period. The focus is on these down votes even though six other unions have ratified the deal, largely because of the expectation that it only takes one to lead all to strike in solidarity. It's also notable that the rejecting BMWED and BRS represent about a quarter of rail unionized employees affected by the negotiations, while those six who have ratified represent just under 20%. Doing the math, there are still four unions (representing about 55% of rail workers) whose ratification votes are in process - with the last expected to wrap up shortly before Thanksgiving. If a strike were to occur, 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. Congress could take action to prevent a strike, extend negotiations or force terms - but that would likely require bipartisan support - something that hasn't been overly prevalent of late. So that's the "what," how about the why.

Why Railroad Workers Are Voting No

The leadership of the two railroad unions whose rank-and-file workers have voted no to the tentative agreement are sounding a common refrain. According to union leadership, employees worked long hours through two years of an unprecedented pandemic to keep freight and passengers moving, and they don't feel the deal justly compensates them for those efforts. Additionally, they're concerned a similar scenario could play out again without better contract terms in place. The contract terms do include provisions for time off for certain medical events like routine and preventative care, hospitalizations and surgery - with an additional paid off day added to a 24% salary increase and $5,000 in bonuses over five years. But rank and file rail workers who voted against the agreement feel the quality of life provisions are lacking. Specifically, both BRS leadership and BMWE leadership have said more paid sick leave is needed to ensure workers' quality of life will improve moving forward. The National Carriers Conference Committee (NCCC) suggests the agreement does go far enough in this regard. While the cooling off period continues, leadership of these unions is expected to resume negotiations with the NCCC to attempt to address their members' concerns as the remaining unions finish up their votes. If the railroads agree to include any improved terms, they'd apply to all rail workers under a "me too" provision.

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