By Tom Ozimek
The risk of a crippling national rail strike has resurged after some members of America’s biggest rail union rejected a deal that was brokered by the White House, bringing to four the total number of unions to reject the tentative agreement.
Train and engine service members of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers union (SMART-TD) voted on Sunday to reject a tentative five-year deal reached in mid-September that had raised hopes that a rail strike would be averted.
With record turnout, 50.87 percent of train and engine service members voted against the tentative deal, the union said in a statement Monday, with attention now shifting to a status quo agreement between SMART-TD and management that ends on Dec. 8, after which members could go on strike.
“SMART-TD members with their votes have spoken. It’s now back to the bargaining table for our operating craft members,” SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said in a statement.
Unless a new deal is reached, starting on Dec. 9, members of SMART-TD will be allowed to go on strike while rail carriers can lock out workers.
“This can all be settled through negotiations and without a strike. A settlement would be in the best interests of the workers, the railroads, shippers, and the American people,” Ferguson said.
Congress to Intervene?
A strike by SMART-TD or any of the other three rail unions that have rejected proposed deals with carriers would mean that the other eight rail unions that have ratified agreements would join the striking workers on picket lines.
But in the event of a strike, Congress could step in and take a range of measures under the Railway Labor Act, including extending the status quo or imposing contract terms.
Hundreds of business groups have urged lawmakers to be ready to intervene if both sides can’t reach an agreement.
The railroads maintain that the deals with the unions should be closely aligned with recommendations made this summer by a special panel of arbitrators appointed by President Joe Biden, who, after a tentative deal was reached in mid-September, hailed the agreement as “an important win for our economy and the American people.”
A potential strike and ensuing shutdown could freeze nearly 30 percent of U.S. cargo shipments, impede supplies of food and fuel, cause transportation snarls, stoke inflation, and cost the U.S. economy about $2 billion per day.
The initial agreement caps health care costs for rail workers, grants them an additional personal day off, and gives them a 24 percent pay raise over five years.
The provisional deal also features changes to railroads’ strict attendance policies, giving workers the opportunity to miss work for medical reasons without facing penalties.
Railroads have called the tentative contract the most generous in modern history, while some union members have said that’s not good enough.
One of the sticking points is paid sick leave, with unions saying it’s long overdue while railroads maintain that unions have agreed to forego paid sick time in favor of higher pay and short-term disability benefits.