2 unions split votes on rail labor agreement

The two remaining railroad unions to vote on whether to ratify their labor agreements have split their votes, increasing the possibility that a rail strike could occur in December.

Members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and yardmasters with the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) have voted in favor of ratifying the agreement. The yardmasters are a nonoperating craft.

But SMART-TD train and engine service members have voted to reject the tentative agreement reached Sept. 15, sending SMART-TD back to the bargaining table with the freight railroads. 

SMART-TD yardmasters represent about 4% of SMART-TD’s membership; conductors, yardmen, brakemen and engine service workers make up the remaining ranks.

BLET experienced a record number of members voting, with 53.5% in favor of the agreement and 46.5% against the agreement. BLET’s membership roster totals approximately 24,000 locomotive engineers and other railroad workers. 

SMART-TD also saw a record number of voting members. Of the more than 28,000 eligible voting members, 50.87% voted to reject the tentative agreement, while 62.48% of yardmasters voted in favor of ratifying the contract. 

“We have worked to ensure that all of our members fully understand the wins and losses in the Presidential Emergency Board recommendations and how those recommendations were improved upon leading to the tentative agreement sent out for their consideration. In every communication we stressed that we were there to explain the tentative agreement, not to tell any member how to vote,” BLET President Dennis Pierce said in a joint release between the two unions. 

“Our goal was to get all involved members to cast a ballot — no matter how they voted. With over two-thirds of eligible BLET members returning a ballot, a true majority of the membership has spoken and I want to thank them all for participating. Rank and file member ratification of contracts is one of the core democratic principles of our union.”

A new labor agreement for each of the 12 unions has been in the works since January 2020, but negotiations between the unions and the railroads failed to progress. In July, President Joe Biden appointed three independent experts to serve on the PEB, which conducted hearings and received testimony from stakeholders about how the unions and railroads could resolve the impasse. PEB issued its recommendations, which were meant to serve as a jumping-off point for a new contract.

BLET joins seven other unions that have agreed to ratify their labor agreements. 

Three other unions, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way-Employes Division (BMWED), the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS) and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers (IBB) recently voted to reject their tentative agreements, putting all three unions back at the bargaining table with the National Carriers Conference Committee, the group representing the freight railroads.

The railroads have argued that the tentative agreement as it stood had the potential to improve scheduling predictability because of a provision in the agreement that requires the parties to work on a railroad-by-railroad basis to address work schedules and job assignments, according to the Association of American Railroads. The tentative agreement also included an arbitration backstop, the freight rail trade group said.

“The BLET joined the majority of our unions in approving the largest wage increases in nearly five decades and also paved a path toward greater scheduling predictability for its members,” AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies said in a Monday release in response to the vote.

A possible strike in December?

Per the Railway Labor Act, union members and the railroads are not allowed to engage in any strikes or work stoppages until a certain number of days after the rejection of a labor agreement has occurred. 

SMART-TD must maintain the status quo until Dec. 8; on Dec. 9, union members could go on strike while the railroads could lock out workers. IBB also has the same status quo time frame.

BRS and BMWED had a status quo timeframe that lasted to Dec. 4 but that could be extended to Dec. 8 since SMART-TD’s operating craft members have voted against ratification. 

“The ball is now in the railroads’ court. Let’s see what they do. They can settle this at the bargaining table,” SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said in the joint release. “But, the railroad executives who constantly complain about government interference and regularly bad-mouth regulators and Congress now want Congress to do the bargaining for them.”

But whether a strike will occur is still unclear. Congress could intervene before the December deadlines by crafting legislation that would require the unions to accept the agreements, with the possibility of binding arbitration or other ways to address contentious issues. 

Shippers’ groups and others have been urging Congress to prevent a rail strike, saying an extended strike could cost the country billions and hasten a recession. 

“Railroads stand ready to reach new deals based upon the PEB framework with our remaining unions, but the window continues to narrow as deadlines rapidly approach. Let’s be clear, if the remaining unions do not accept an agreement, Congress should be prepared to act and avoid a disastrous $2 billion a day hit to our economy,” Jefferies said.

Ferguson also said a strike might not be in the best interest of the unions. Observers have noted that a Republican-controlled Congress could require the unions to follow a labor agreement that might not include provisions between the unions and individual railroads.

“SMART-TD members with their votes have spoken, it’s now back to the bargaining table for our operating craft members,” Ferguson said. “This can all be settled through negotiations and without a strike. A settlement would be in the best interests of the workers, the railroads, shippers and the American people.”

But if members of any of the four unions still engaged in contract talks decide to go on strike, Pierce said his union and others have pledged to lawfully honor picket lines. 

“We stood shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters in SMART-TD and others in rail labor throughout this process, and we will continue to stand in solidarity with them as we approach the finish line in this round of negotiations,” Pierce said.

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