US railways and lobbyists call for action to prevent rail strike

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by Emily Atkins

US rail labour unions concluded voting on proposed bargaining agreements with the nation’s freight railroads.

BLET, which represents engineers and trainmen, has successfully ratified its agreement, while SMART-TD, which represents conductors and other rail employees, failed to do so.

“Today, the BLET joined the majority of our unions in approving the largest wage increases in nearly five decades and also paved a path toward greater scheduling predictability for its members,” said Association of American Railroads (AAR) president and CEO Ian Jefferies.

“Railroads stand ready to reach new deals based upon the PEB framework with our remaining unions, but the window continues to narrow as deadlines rapidly approach. Let’s be clear, if the remaining unions do not accept an agreement, Congress should be prepared to act and avoid a disastrous $2 billion a day hit to our economy.”

Membership voting results at SMART-TD, which holds two separate contracts, were split. The first agreement, which represents the conductor, brakemen, engine service and yardmen groups, was not ratified. The second SMART-TD agreement, which covers approximately 1,300 yardmasters, was ratified.

Eight of the 12 labour unions plus a portion of SMART-TD’s membership have now fully agreed to contracts that provide employees with a 24 percent wage increase over the five-year period from 2020 to 2024 and preserve healthcare coverage.

BLET’s agreement also paves the way to address important issues related to schedule predictability and job assignments on a railroad-by-railroad basis for engineers whose work assignments, similar to conductors, can be dependent upon train schedules that vary. In rejecting its agreement, SMART-TD also rejected the pathway for further scheduling negotiations.

Four unions – BMWED, BRS and IBB, in addition to SMART-TD – remain without agreements in place, and the end of their cooling-off periods is rapidly approaching. A strike is possible as soon as December 8th.

“SMART-TD members with their votes have spoken, it’s now back to the bargaining table for our operating craft members,” said SMART-TD president Jeremy Ferguson. “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.”

Beginning  on December 9, SMART-TD would be allowed to go on strike or the rail carriers would be permitted to lock out workers — unless Congress intervenes.

“The ball is now in the railroads’ court. Let’s see what they do. They can settle this at the bargaining table,” said Ferguson. “But, the railroad executives who constantly complain about government interference and regularly bad-mouth regulators and Congress now want Congress to do the bargaining for them.”

If there is a strike by SMART-TD or any of the other three rail unions that have rejected proposed contracts with the carriers, BLET and the other eight rail unions that have ratified agreement have pledged to lawfully honor their picket lines.

A work stoppage would have disastrous impacts on the economy, rail customers and the American people, with a projected impact of US$2 billion per day, according to AAR.

While railroads remain committed to reaching agreements with these remaining unions, the timeline for those to occur is short.

Congress has historically intervened to prevent rail system disruptions. “In the event that the four unions remain unwilling to enter agreements within the bounds of the PEB’s framework, Congress must be prepared to act and institute the terms supported by the majority of the unions, guaranteeing certainty for rail customers and the broader economy,” AAR said in a statement.

“A nationwide rail strike during the peak holiday season will be devastating for American businesses, consumers and the U.S. economy,” echoed National Retail Federation president and CEO Matthew Shay. “American businesses and families are already facing increased prices due to persistent inflation, and a rail strike will create greater inflationary pressures and will threaten business resiliency. Congress must intervene immediately to avoid a rail strike and a catastrophic shutdown of the freight rail system. Smooth and stable operations on the rails is absolutely crucial this holiday season and should not be derailed by a rejection of the contract. Eight of the 12 unions have ratified the agreement, while four have rejected it. The parties must work out the issues and ratify the contract without a disruption to the system. If not, Congress must step in to prevent a strike.”