Key Freight Rail Union rejects deal, raising risk of strike

Members of a union representing mostly rail freight carriers narrowly rejected a temporary employment contract, their union said on Monday.

If the two sides fail to reach another tentative agreement by early December, rail workers could go on strike — an outcome that industry officials have estimated could cost the economy more than $2 billion a day.

About 51 percent of the voting members of the SMART Transportation Division union opposed the agreement. Members of a second major union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which mostly represents engineers, voted 53.5 percent in favor of the agreement.

“SMART-TD members have spoken with their voices, now it’s back to the negotiating table for our operational craft members,” SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said in a statement. “It can all be settled through negotiations and without a strike. A settlement would be in the best interests of workers, the railroads, shippers, and the American people.”

Ian Jefferies, chief executive officer of the Association of American Railroads, which represents major airlines, said in a statement that “railroads are poised to win new business” but that “the window continues to narrow as deadlines rapidly approach.”

A strike could cause significant economic disruption. Federal data shows that before the pandemic, railroads carried about 28 percent of U.S. freight, including essential manufactured goods like coal, lumber, ore and chemicals, making it the second-biggest mode of freight transport behind trucks at about 40 percent. Goods rail supports are also important when transporting automobiles and their components.

The American Trucking Associations, an industry group, wrote in September that the country would need more than 460,000 additional long-haul trucks each day if the nation’s freight rails were shut down. The group said such a large shift to trucking is impossible due to the industry’s lack of adequate equipment and tens of thousands of drivers.

“Therefore, any disruption to rail service will wreak havoc in the supply chain and add to inflationary pressures across the board,” the group wrote.

The proposal, which union members rejected and was achieved in September with help from the Biden administration, included more than 100,000 members from a dozen rail industry unions and would have cut wages by nearly over the five years that began in 2020, when the last contract expired 25 percent increased .

But rail workers have said their main concerns are the grueling, unpredictable schedules that are taking a toll on their personal lives and health. Many have complained that long journeys and hours of on-call duty make it difficult to see a doctor about an illness or injury, or to attend important family events like a child’s birthday.

Railroad companies say employees can generally meet these needs by taking paid leave. Workers say their employers restrict their ability to take paid time off in practice — for example, by narrowing the windows when they can take vacation time or by refusing a requested personal day.

The tentative agreement would have allowed workers to fly up to three times a year for a routine doctor’s appointment without risking disciplinary action, but many workers said the concession was insufficient and that the deeper issue underlying their concerns didn’t address: a business model that seeks to minimize labor costs and leads to chronic understaffing.

The Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that regulates rail freight, has estimated that major freight companies employed 30 percent fewer workers this year than they did six years ago.

Before the conductors’ union voted against the agreement, three smaller unions that would be covered by the agreement voted against it. That alone could have led to an industry-wide strike because rail workers are unlikely to cross other union pickets.

Skeptical conductors and engineers have pointed out that the tentative agreement may have exacerbated staffing problems and made their schedules even more unpredictable by allowing airlines to make a long-awaited staff turnover.

Under the current system, conductors and engineers drop to the bottom of a list of available crews after completing a voyage, then gradually work their way up and are then sent out again.

When an employee calls in sick, an employee from a group known as the Extra Board can be substituted to keep the other conductors and engineers from moving up the list more quickly and maintain some predictability in their schedule.

Workers say additional board cuts in recent years have undermined that predictability. The interim agreement allowed airlines to set up so-called self-supporting pools that eliminate the use of replacement workers, although it appeared to give unions some formal say in whether they should do so.

“The self-protecting pools are really, really big,” said Michael Paul Lindsey, an Idaho-based engineering union member, alluding to the reasons many workers opposed the deal.

Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh, who in September helped broker the deal that unions rejected, said in an interview with CNN this month that Congress must intervene to avert a strike if the two sides don’t resolve their differences could. It was not clear from the interview whether he was urging action or merely intending to suggest possible legal options.

Congress involvement could take various forms. Congress could extend the so-called cooling-off period, during which both sides negotiate without a strike, or require both sides to enter arbitration.

It could also pass legislation enacting a proposal issued over the summer by a presidential emergency committee whose provisions on the exemption were less generous than the deal it just rejected, or enact the newer deal itself.

Mr Lindsey said Mr Walsh’s announcement had angered his staff, who believed they should be allowed to strike unless the industry made sufficient concessions. He said many workers suspect the government’s primary concern was to prevent the industrial dispute from boiling over ahead of this month’s midterm elections, rather than addressing their concerns.

“People are feeling totally sold out,” Mr Lindsey said, adding: “Now that it’s post-election there will be no accountability.”