The threat of a rail strike rises as members of another union reject a proposed labor agreement

New York
CNN business

Members of another railroad union have rejected a tentative labor agreement, a move that increases the chances of America’s freight railroad workers going on strike next month.

The Union of Railroad Signalers voted against the September tentative agreement, according to results announced Wednesday. The votes were 2,810, or 60.5%, against the proposed four-year agreement, and 1,820, or 39.2%, in favor of it. The union represents more than 6,000 workers on the nation’s major freight railroads who install, repair and maintain the signal systems used to guide trains.

“For the first time in my memory, BRS members voted not to ratify a National Agreement, and with the highest turnout in BRS history,” BRS President Michael Baldwin said in a statement.

Earlier this month, members of the BMWWED, a union representing about 23,000 road maintenance workers, voted to reject a similar temporary labor agreement, setting the stage for an imminent strike. November 19

The signal workers’ union also mentioned November 19 as a possible strike date, although a statement from railway management said the union had agreed to continue working “until early December”. Union officials were not immediately available to answer questions about the discrepancy.

The National Carriers’ Conference Committee, which negotiates with all unions on behalf of the railroads, released a statement saying it was “disappointed” with the results of the vote, but said the current cooling-off period “failed ratification does not risk immediate service disruption.”

Although these unions are smaller than the two that represent conductors and engineers, a strike by any of the 12 freight train unions would be recognized by the others and cause the nation’s major freight railroads to halt operations.

That, in turn, would create major problems for the US 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. 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.

Rail unions nearly went on strike last month before reaching eleventh-hour deals on September 15, which represented unions representing conductors and engineers. The tentative agreements followed a marathon 20-hour negotiating session that included direct intervention from President Joe Biden and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.

The new contracts pending for all unions include an immediate 14% increase in retroactive pay starting in 2020, and a 24% total pay increase over the four-year term of the contracts, which runs from 2020 to 2024. They give money to union members. bonuses 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 the deals were difficult to negotiate, not because of financial terms, but because of work rules that unions say pushed engineers and managers to breaking point. Staff shortages required crew members to be on call seven days a week, ready to go to work at short notice.

The managers’ and engineers’ unions won changes to existing rules as part of recent negotiations to avert a strike. Union leaders said without those changes, members would not ratify the deal.

But he worries that anger over the existing rules could push some members to vote against a new contract as a way of expressing frustration, even if the rules have changed.

Department members are also upset about the lack of sick days in the tentative agreement. In the past, unions agreed to higher wages in exchange for no sick days, except for long medical absences. Interim agreements do not change these provisions.

Members of the six smallest rail unions have ratified their contracts despite missing sick days. But it seems that there may be trouble in making a deal that will be accepted by the BMWED membership.

After BMWED rejected the tentative agreement, union leadership proposed adding paid sick days during a bargaining session, prompting management to reject the motion. That refusal further increased the risk of a new deal not being reached before the November 19 strike deadline.

Union officials are also concerned that a “no” vote by BMWED and the workers’ unions will lead to a rejection of the contract by managers and engineers. A union official told CNN Business after BMWED’s vote last week that the outcome of those votes was a “toss-up.”

Railroad labor relations are governed by a different labor law than that governing workers in most U.S. businesses. Rail unions have limits on how long they can strike and cannot take action during recesses following a “no” vote by members. Congress can also prevent or end a strike by extending the furlough period or imposing a contract on union members.

Ahead of the September strike deadline, many business groups were calling on Congress to act. However, the Democratic leadership expressed its reluctance to go against the unions and order them to continue working.

Even if Democrats lose control of one or both chambers of Congress in the midterm elections, they would have control of the legislature during the so-called lame duck session, which runs until the end of the year.

The anger of the unions has not only been expressed in the railways. Union members working in other industries have recently refused to accept contracts, even when recommended by their management. While most union contracts have been ratified, there have been some high-profile examples of union members voting “no.”

10,000 members of the United Auto Workers at the John Deere farm equipment factory went on strike last fall after rejecting a tentative agreement. That rejected offer included an immediate 5% to 6% increase in his base salary, with additional salary increases later that could increase his average salary by about 20% over the six-year duration of the contract. And it included a cost-of-living adjustment that would have given workers additional pay based on future inflation.

But 90% of Deere’s UAW members voted no and went on strike, then went on strike after the subsequent offer was rejected. They finally returned to work five weeks later after a third vote on a similar package.

Workers at cereal maker Kellogg ( K ) also rejected the tentative deal and decided to go on strike in December before finally agreeing to a contract a few weeks later.