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4,900-Member Union OKs Rail Contract Despite ‘Deficiencies’

Members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) returned a vote approving a contract with railroads, even as the union joins a chorus of groups critical of carriers’ sick leave policies.

IAM represents about 4,900 workers, with 52 percent of voting members agreeing to ratify the contract before them, according to results of the vote released over the weekend. 

“IAM District 19 members have accepted the tentative agreement,” the union said in a statement. “We are confident that this is the best deal for our members. District 19 leadership worked day and night to communicate the agreement’s benefits and what would happen if it was rejected.”

IAM is now the seventh union to agree to ratifying the five-year contract that runs through 2024 and represents a 24 percent compounded increase to wages. 

Even with the union saying the deal represented the “best” offer before members, the issue of sick paid time off, among other factors, remains an issue for some of the membership.

“Our union recognizes that the agreement wasn’t accepted overwhelmingly, so our team will continue conversing with our members at our rail yards across the nation,” IAM said. “This agreement is the first step in addressing some of the issues in our industry. Our fight was able to shine a light on the work-life balance issues as well as the lack of proper paid sick leave. Our union will continue to amplify the deficiencies in the carriers’ sick leave and attendance policies.” 

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The union went on to say it looks “forward to sitting down with carriers to find a solution to the overtime policies in our industry.” 

Some of the unions have been pushing for additional paid sick time off allowances in the contracts with carriers. It was an issue that led to carriers and shippers narrowly missing a nationwide rail shutdown in September, when the remaining three unions involved in the current round of talks finalized tentative agreements with carriers. 

The tentative deals struck by the dozen unions involved in talks are now in various stages of the ratification process among their memberships. 

Three unions have not yet completed a vote, while two unions’ memberships rejected their contracts. 

The earliest a strike could occur is Nov. 19 with members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED), which kicked back the contract last month. The group represents nearly 24,000 workers. 

Paid time off for illnesses proved the sticking point in the vote results, with BMWED president Tony Cardwell saying at the time that “railroaders are discouraged and upset with working conditions and compensation and hold their employer in low regard.” 

The National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC), which represents the railroads in the negotiations, scoffed at BMWED’s request for additional benefits and also reminded the union it had initially “hailed the tentative agreement.” 

“Now is not the time to introduce new demands that rekindle the prospect of a railroad strike,” the NCCC said last month in response to voting results.  

The NCCC has also maintained it will not accept BMWED’s new proposal with increased benefits. 

Cardwell later argued in his defense that he accepted the tentative deal so members would have the option of voting on it rather than run the risk of Congress forcing the unions to accept a contract.

Unions had until Sept. 15 to work out tentative agreements following recommendations made by a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) established by President Biden to help facilitate a resolution to the protracted talks. 

Had tentative deals not been struck at that time, the unions would have had the option to strike or Congress could have stepped in to avert a shutdown and enact law that would have likely imposed the PEB recommendations.  

The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS), which counts more than 6,000 workers involved in the negotiations, is the other union that rejected its contract, citing inadequate paid sick time allocated in the deal. 

The NCCC has continued to argue paid sick leave is allowed and triggered after four days of absences, a stipulation that has resulted from what it said are “decades of bargaining where the unions have repeatedly agreed that short-term absences would be unpaid in favor of higher compensation for days worked and more generous sickness benefits for longer absences.”