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Pre-Thanksgiving Rail Strike Off the Table

One of the larger railroad unions to vote down a contract with carriers agreed to bump the deadline on the earliest it could strike to align with other labor groups in a move that could give workers more negotiating leverage and stave off congressional intervention. 

Status quo, or the cooling off period for workers and employers, allows for both sides to continue to work on resolving the contract dispute without the threat of a strike or lockout action. Status quo was originally set to end Nov. 19 for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED), a unit of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, but has been pushed to at least Dec. 4, according to an update from the National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC) on Wednesday. 

BMWED’s membership of nearly 24,000 employees represents about 19 percent of the total number of workers involved in contract negotiations, which began in 2020. 

The NCCC represents the railroads in the negotiations impacting nearly 125,000 workers. 

The new date aligns with the end of status quo for the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS) and potentially other unions, including the BLET and SMART-TD, whose members have not yet completed the voting process on their contracts.

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The BMWED and BRS members voted against ratifying their contracts with carriers, resetting the clock on how early a strike or lockout action could occur as the two went back to negotiations with the railroads to work out a dispute over paid sick time off. 

The unions essentially want more paid days allocated for sick time, while the railroads have remained firm in their position against additional days.

“The railroads continue to reject all BMWED and BRS proposals for paid sick leave,” BMWED confirmed Wednesday. 

The union went on to cite reports suggesting the railroads have already begun preparations for a strike this month by cutting certain operations, a move BMWED criticized. 

“These shutdowns would also represent a blatant attempt to cause panic and economic harm to the railroads’ customers and the U.S. economy right before the Thanksgiving holiday,” the union said. “They would also be a manipulative attempt to instigate Congress to intervene against the interests of railroad workers. The railroad workers are not the problem here and are not to blame for the current situation.” 

BMWED cited three major reasons for why extending the deadline to December made sense, including using strength in numbers to keep Congress out of negotiations and bolster the odds of obtaining paid sick leave. The move allows more time to “educate” policymakers on crafting a bill that is “written for railroad workers, not the railroads,” the union went on to say.

BMWED also pointed to a resolution introduced by Senators Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) in September that would prevent a strike by using the recommendations made by President Biden’s Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to force adoption of a new contract, preventing workers from having the final say on their agreements with employers.

Seven unions have so far ratified their contracts, with three others in the midst of voting.

The NCCC said Wednesday the extended deadline for BMWED “eliminates the threat of a near-term freight rail service disruption.” 

“The railroads will remain engaged with BMWED throughout the extended cooling off period and will continue to seek an agreement based on the framework recommended by Presidential Emergency Board 250,” the NCCC said. “Agreements based on the PEB’s recommendations were endorsed by President Biden as a ‘win for tens of thousands of rail workers’ and have been ratified by the members of seven other unions.” 

The PEB’s report, based on a series of hearings held with labor leaders and railroads during the summer, was released in August and included a 24 percent compounded increase in wages across the contract’s five-year period along with $1,000 in annual bonuses. 

Estimates pegged the cost of a national rail shutdown at roughly $2 billion a day.