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Threat of Rail Strike Still Very Real

Disappointed rail workers are still in favor a strike, a new poll found, which could send the nation’s goods movement system into a tailspin. 

Railroad Workers United (RWU), an organization that represents rail workers across unions, released a survey this week that found nearly 95 percent of those surveyed supported a strike after the cooling off period between unions and carriers ends Sept. 16. 

The survey aimed to gauge workers’ thoughts following the release earlier this month of the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) recommendations outlining how the two parties might resolve the multi-year contract dispute impacting 115,000 workers. 

Workers surveyed also said they would not support the PEB package of recommendations as they currently exist.

The survey involved 3,162 workers who were polled up until Aug. 29, with the majority represented by the SMART Transportation Division (SMART-TD), Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED) and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET). Most of those surveyed went further to rank the PEB recommendations low on a scale of one to 10 when it came to whether the report met their expectations for what they would define as a “good contract.”

Nearly one-third of those surveyed ranked the PEB report with a score of one in meeting their expectations. About 8 percent fell somewhere in the middle, ranking the PEB report a five. Less than 1 percent of workers surveyed said the recommendations met their expectations. 

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While the number of those surveyed does not reflect the majority of workers involved in the current round of collective bargaining, it could offer a general read on worker sentiment. 

The organization went on to state its “unequivocal opposition to any tentative agreement” that does not include “substantial add-ons” from what the PEB recommended. 

The Transportation Communications Union/IAM (TCU/IAM), Brotherhood of Railway Carmen and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers on Monday struck tentative agreements with the carriers, represented by the National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC), which will now go before their members for ratification. 

The three unions’ tentative deal, which covers more than 5,000 workers, includes the PEB’s recommended 24 percent pay increase over the contract’s five-year period, starting in 2020, and $5,000 total in bonuses. 

TCU national president Arthur Maratea on Monday raised the possibility of Congress stepping into the process to force terms of an agreement and argued it was better for members to vote on a package. 

“If there was any chance of reaching a better agreement we would still be bargaining,” Maratea said. 

As part of the collective bargaining process under the Railway Labor Act, the end of the current cooling off period means a strike could proceed, or Congress could step in to avert such a disruption. 

The RWU’s official stance on the recommendations, released Tuesday, made the group’s disappointment with the report clear, saying the upset was not so much about the suggested wage increase, but the requests related to working conditions the group said was ignored. 

“Not only is the PEB’s failure to address work rules and conditions a slap on the face to working railroaders, but that failure also betrays shippers, passengers and the nation as a whole who have been hoping to see an end to the ongoing rail service crisis,” the RWU said. “By not addressing these issues and this discontent among the workforce, the PEB has acted irresponsibly, their recommendations doing little to nothing to stem the tide of discontent nor address the ongoing mass exodus of workers from the industry.”

Rail unions for some time now have been critical of the Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) model, which emphasizes general purpose trains that keep cargo moving and reduce dwell times. Unions have blamed the system for creating unsafe working conditions and poor service for shippers.

The RWU survey and official statement come as a number of collective bargaining agreements are at play domestically and abroad. 

West Coast dockworkers enter their third month of working without a contract in September as negotiations for 22,000 continue. Meanwhile, in the last mile the International Brotherhood of Teamsters said in August it would begin a year-long campaign in the lead up to negotiations for 350,000 UPS workers whose contract is set to expire July 31, 2023. And, FedEx is looking to quiet an outspoken critic and former contractor of its Ground business by suing Spencer Patton. Patton’s contracts on 225 routes were also severed after the delivery giant filed its lawsuit against him. Patton had formed the Trade Association for Logistics Professionals (TALP) and said he’d be forced to stop operating his routes beginning Black Friday due to the financial difficulties he faced over FedEx’s refusal to renegotiate his contracts.  

“The labor movement is enjoying a resurgence, which has not been seen in decades,” the RWU said. “Workers in previously unionized industries have been striking and winning, and workers in traditionally non-union sectors have been organizing.”