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Pre-Thanksgiving Rail Strike Threat Back on the Table

The union representing railroad building and maintenance employees said Monday its members have rejected a tentative agreement with employers, raising the possibility yet again of a future strike.

The dozen unions involved in the national collective bargaining process with the country’s major railroads are in various stages of the voting process in which members decide whether to ratify tentative contracts struck by their leadership. The negotiations had been a source of anxiety within the shipping community last month as some unions were still without tentative deals as a deadline loomed before workers and employers could have engaged in a strike or lockout

Monday’s news the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED) rejected the contract means the union and employers go back to the negotiating table, with Nov. 19 the earliest a strike could occur.

A little over 56 percent of BMWED members who voted were against ratifying the contract. 

“Railroaders are discouraged and upset with working conditions and compensation and hold their employer in low regard,” BMWED president Tony Cardwell said in a statement Monday. “Railroaders do not feel valued. They resent the fact that management holds no regard for their quality of life, illustrated by their stubborn reluctance to provide a higher quantity of paid time off, especially for sickness. The result of this vote indicates that there is a lot of work to do to establish goodwill and improve the morale that has been broken by the railroads’ executives and Wall Street hedge fund managers.” 

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Cardwell went on to say the vote drew “record numbers” of members, “exhibiting that they are paying close attention and are engaged in the process.” 

The National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC), which is negotiating on behalf of the railroads in the current collective bargaining process, said Monday the BMWED vote “does not present risk of an immediate service disruption.” 

The NCCC went on to say it was “disappointed” by the outcome of the vote.  

To date, four unions have ratified their agreements. Seven are either awaiting the results of or preparing for a vote. 

Dennis Pierce, national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), and Jeremy Ferguson, president of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers—Transportation Division (SMART-TD), issued a joint video statement last week in an attempt to clear up any misinformation around the tentative deals. 

The two unions, along with the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, were the last of the unions to reach deals with carriers on Sept. 15, just hours before a possible strike. 

The three groups represent a total of 60,000 workers. 

Some workers, since the tentative agreements were reached, have been critical of the deals. 

“We want you to understand that we feel your frustration and acknowledge that this bargaining round has taken far too long,” Pierce said last week in the joint video to members. 

Carriers and workers have been in negotiations on a new contract for more than two years. 

An initial cooling off period after mediation failed in the summer raised concerns of a strike, but that was averted when the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) was established by the president to assist the two parties in their dispute. 

Both sides had the chance to make presentations before the PEB, which then released its recommendations in August. That report included a suggested 24 percent compounded wage increase over the contract’s five-year term, retroactive to 2020, in addition to annual bonuses totaling $5,000. 

Carriers and unions, following the PEB report, then went back to negotiations based on the board’s recommendations. Had the final three unions not struck deals last month, Congress could have stepped in to stop a major rail disruption.

Unions sought to avoid such intervention, given lawmakers have historically implemented the PEB recommendations. That reality was raised by SMART-TD’s Ferguson last week when he told members, “you should be aware that Congress could again be poised to impose the bear PEB recommendations without the enhancements we have negotiated if ratification fails.”