Labor secretary says Congress must block rail strikes without new deal

New York
CNN business

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh says he hopes negotiators between the railroads and some train unions can reach new labor agreements and avoid a possible strike. But without a deal, he said he hopes Congress will step in and impose contracts on unhappy union members.

The announcement is a blow to unions as they seek to win a contract that their membership will accept.

Both railroad unions reached tentative labor agreements with the railroads in September, ahead of the strike deadline, and their members voted against ratifying them.

“My goal is to get those two unions back to the table with the companies and get this thing done,” Walsh told CNN Friday. He said a negotiated agreement “is the best thing we can do to avoid any kind of train strike or slowdown.”

Walsh participated in a 20-hour bargaining session that reached tentative labor agreements hours before the Sept. 16 strike deadline. In the absence of a new negotiated agreement, Congress should impose a contract on the unions, he said, as a way to keep union members working.

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

One of those two unions – track maintenance workers in the Union of Track Maintenance Workers Division – will strike on November 19 without a new deal, while the other, the Union of Railway Signalers, could walk. Out as soon as December 4th. BMWED members voted 57% against the proposed deal, while Signalmen union members voted 60% against the deals.

If any railroad union went on strike, all railroad unions, which together represent about 110,000 members, would respect their picket lines and walk off the job, bringing the nation’s freight railroads to a standstill. That would be a body blow to the US economy, crippling supply chains that are still struggling and causing bottlenecks and widespread shortages.

About 30% of US freight, measured by weight and distance traveled, moves by rail. Prices of goods from gasoline to groceries to cars could rise if the trains stop. In addition, factories could be forced to close temporarily due to parts shortages. Goods that consumers want to buy during the holiday season may be missing from store shelves.

Walsh’s statement, while unwelcome, did not come as a surprise to Michael Baldwin, president of the Signalmen’s union. Many business groups were urging Congress to act before the September 16 strike deadline, and two Republican senators, Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Richard Burr of North Carolina, introduced legislation that would have given unions a contract.
“The Republicans were ready to pass something then,” Baldwin said. “They have that ability.”

But at the time Democrats refused to act to block a potential strike. Sen. Richard Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, told CNN at the time that “I don’t think we’re likely to intervene.” He said avoiding a strike “depends on the parties in negotiations stepping up to the plate”.

The Association of American Railroads said it is talking to Congress if new deals can’t be reached.

“Nobody wants a strike to happen, and everything we’ve done throughout this process has been focused on reaching an agreement and avoiding even the threat of one,” the group’s statement said. “However, should we be unable to reach ratified agreements, Congress has historically stepped in to prevent a service disruption.

The unions want to go on strike, which they believe will put pressure on the railway management to negotiate their demands. The threat that Congress could impose on the contract removes much of the leverage that unions need to reach an agreement.

Rejected deals are profits: an an immediate 14% increase with retroactive pay starting in 2020 and a total 24% pay increase over the four-year term of the contracts, which run from 2020 to 2024. They also give bonuses of $1,000 a year to union members.

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 pay was never the main issue in those negotiations. The main issue that led the BMWED and the Signals community is the lack of paid sick leave in the rejected temporary employment agreements. The railway management has already rejected the BMWED’s request to add sick days to the upcoming interim agreement to get the deal ratified by the membership.

Unions have historically agreed to unpaid sick day contracts in exchange for higher wages for days worked. Of the six other unions that agreed to the temporary no-paid-sick-day deals, two of these unions voted against it and the other four unions – including the two largest, representing engineers and managers – have yet to announce the results of their votes.

Congress would be free to impose any contract it wants on unions and railroads that includes terms the unions may want or is far more attractive than what their members have already rejected.

Any action taken by Congress would require a degree of bipartisanship. Even if Republicans gain control of one or both houses of Congress in next week’s elections, the Congress that meets in November and December would be a so-called “Lame Duck Congress” made up of current members, not newly elected, Democrats. it would still be under control.

Baldwin said Signals and railroad management held a virtual negotiating session this week and will meet in person next week.

“The parties are trying to resolve the issue, that’s the best outcome,” he said.