A third rail union rejects the contract proposal, raising the possibility of a strike

New York
CNN business

A third railroad union has rejected a tentative labor agreement, a move that increases the chances of America’s 110,000 freight railroad workers going on strike early next month.

Members of the International Guild of Questioners voted against the tentative deal reached in September, according to the union and the railroads. The exact margin of opposition to the proposed deal was not immediately available.

The union represents about 300 workers who repair and rebuild diesel locomotives and railroads. It is the smallest of 13 unions representing more than 100,000 union members on the nation’s major freight railroads. But if any of these unions hit the railroads, their picket lines would be respected by the other unions, which would still close a vital link in the nation’s supply chain.

The National Carriers’ Conference Committee, which represents management in the negotiations, said it was “disappointed” with the vote, but that with the cooling-off period in place, “the failed ratification does not create any risk of any strike or industrial action. The potential for any resulting service disruptions by IBB ” until December 9, at least.

The union’s brief statement on the vote said it “fully expects to continue to negotiate a good contract” with railroad management. But the vote is a sign of the threat of a shutdown of the nation’s railroads within weeks because of difficulties in reaching an agreement acceptable to both frontline workers and the railroads.

In October members of the Brotherhood of Road Maintenance Workers District (BMWED), which represents about 23,000 road maintenance workers, voted to reject a similar interim agreement. So did the Guild of Railway Signalers, who maintain the signal system necessary to run the railways. Both unions will go on strike as soon as December 4th.

The no votes are stark evidence of anger among workers against railroad management and raise the bar on deals they can ratify. The vote was close in some unions that confirmed the temporary agreements negotiated by their management.

The two largest rail unions, representing the engineers and drivers who make up the two-man train crews, are holding their own ratification vote, the results of which will be known on November 21.

Each union that rejects ratification increases the chances of one of them going on strike, which would be enough to shut down the four major US freight railroads. Unless new deals can be reached that can win confirmation votes, the only way to prevent a strike would be an act of Congress that orders workers to stay on the job.

A freight rail strike would spell big trouble for the U.S. economy, engulfing still-struggling supply chains and widening bottlenecks and shortages.

About 30% of US freight, measured by weight and distance traveled, moves by rail. Any prolonged strike could send prices of goods ranging from gasoline to groceries to cars soaring. In addition, factories could be forced to close temporarily due to parts shortages. Products that consumers want to buy may be missing from store shelves.

Railroad labor relations are governed by a different labor law than that governing workers in most U.S. businesses. Railroad unions have limits on how long they can strike, and are prohibited from taking action during “status quo” periods following a membership no vote.

The deals being voted on are win-win for union members. They receive an immediate 14% raise with retroactive pay in 2020, as well as a 24% salary increase over the four-year term of the contracts, through 2024. to receive a cash prize of $1,000 per year.

All told, the back wages and bonuses will give union members an average payout of $11,000 per worker when the deal is ratified.

But it has not been the salary that has been a problem in the negotiations, but the work rules and quality of life issues., such as staffing levels and paid sick time, which are not covered by the interim agreements. So far, railroad management has rejected proposals from union negotiators as an option to increase sick pay.

Congress can also prevent or end a strike by extending the furlough period during which unions cannot strike or by imposing a contract on union members.

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who took part in a marathon 20-hour session between rail management and three unions in September to avert a strike, said last month he remains hopeful. that unions and management will be able to reach new agreements that are acceptable to fill the ranks of members.

Without such progress, however, Congress will have to act to prevent a strike, he said.

There is “for some reason [one of the unions] then he doesn’t get a deal with the companies … Congress will have to take action to prevent a strike in our country,” Walsh said in an interview with CNN.

Unions have made it clear that they do not want a contract that keeps the jobs in place by the actions of Congress. They believe the threat of a strike is the best way to get their members to accept a new deal, especially one that offers paid sick time that is missing from current labor agreements.

“Congress should not intervene. “Railroads need to give paid sick leave to their employees,” BMWED said in response to Walsh’s comments. “They have the money to do it, and it would literally cost them one cent of every dollar of record earnings to give it. CSX, NS and UP this year now it’s only 2% of what they spend on stock purchases.It’s literally nothing to them, but they refuse to give it to them.

Even before during the September strike, many business groups were calling on Congress to act. But the democratic leadership expressed reluctance to the order for the unions to continue working.

Control of the House of Representatives in the new Congress is still uncertain as vote counting continues after last week’s midterm elections. But Democrats will still have control of the House and Senate until the end of the year. It would still take a certain level of bipartisanship to get legislation through both chambers of a deeply divided Congress to end or prevent a strike.