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This 5,000-Member Rail Union Just Authorized a Strike

A rail union representing nearly 5,000 workers said Wednesday its members have rejected a tentative agreement struck with carriers, adding to mounting uncertainty around whether employers and labor can stave off a possible strike come Friday. 

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) said its roughly 4,900 workers voted against a deal its leadership struck with carriers late last month. Instead, the union said members voted to authorize a strike.

“Out of respect for other unions in the ratification process, an extension has been agreed to until Sept. 29 at 12 p.m. ET,” IAM said in a statement Wednesday. “This extension will allow us to continue to negotiate changes with the NCCC [National Carriers’ Conference Committee] in the hopes of achieving an agreement our membership would ratify.” 

The NCCC is the organization negotiating on behalf of the railroads. 

A dozen unions have been involved in negotiations with carriers for more than two years. After talks failed to reach resolution through mediation, President Biden established the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) in July in a bid to offer additional aid to both sides in reaching new agreements.

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The PEB’s recommendations were released last month with so far nine of the 12 unions having been publicly confirmed as having reaching tentative agreements with carriers. Those agreements then went before members for ratification. 

The IAM membership’s voting results on the deal marks the first group of workers to toss back a tentative accord and vote in favor of a strike since labor and employers went back to the negotiating table after the PEB made its recommendations.

IAM leadership in late August, at the time of the tentative deal, had said it supported the agreement and urged members to vote in favor of the contract, which includes a 24 percent compounded wage increase over a five-year period beginning in 2020. 

“We look forward to continuing that vital work with a fair contract that ensures our members and their families are treated with the respect they deserve for keeping America’s goods and resources moving through the pandemic,” IAM said Wednesday. 

It’s unclear what the union will go back to the NCCC on to further negotiate. 

While the same percentage increase to wages would apply to all 12 unions’ workers, individual groups were also negotiating on various fronts unique to their workforce. 

In IAM’s case, one of the union’s proposals asked that railroads not be allowed to use the time employees took off with paid sick days when determining a worker’s attendance. The union had called the policy “unreasonable and unfair,” while also defeating the purpose of paid sick time. 

Carriers argued to the PEB their right as management to determine the parameters of their own attendance policies. The board ultimately suggested the union drop its proposal calling it “too overbroad.” 

The White House said it is working with union leaders and railroads to assist in reaching deals prior to the end of the cooling off period at 12:01 a.m. on Friday, at which time a strike or lockout could occur.