Why the threat of a rail strike is delayed but not gone

There will be no freight railroad strike early Friday. But the threat of a strike has not gone away entirely.

The tentative deal reached early Thursday after a marathon 20-hour bargaining session between the railroads and the leaders of the engineers and conductors union means the strike that had been due to start at 12:01 am ET Friday will not occur. But the agreement still needs to be ratified by rank-and-file union members for it to go into effect.

The details of the ratification vote have yet to be set but it is likely weeks away. Although the unions’ leadership described the agreement as a negotiating win, a successful ratification vote is not yet assured.

Some union members appeared to criticize the deal on social media, and the unions’ leadership conceded that some rank-and-file members may be unsatisfied with the deal.

“We got a little bit of paid time off, but we’ll live to fight another day. You know, that’s part of bargaining,” Michael Baldwin, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, told CNN. “When the members look at what is in the contract, I think they’re going to see that the wages and extra day of paid leave is going to be beneficial to them. …Sometimes you can’t accomplish everything, so you come back next time.”

Another union leader was confident the tentative deal would be accepted.

“I think we got everything we could,” Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen told CNN. “And I think once our membership understands where we sit and what’s in it, I think it’ll ratify.”

Trend of rank-and-file rejecting deals

Rank and file union members working in other industries have recently balked at approving their deals, even when recommended by their unions’ leadership. While most union contracts are ratified, there have been some very high-profile examples of angry union members voting no.

About 10,000 members of the United Auto Workers union at farm equipment maker John Deere went on strike last fall after rejecting a lucrative tentative agreement. That rejected offer included immediate raises in their base pay of 5% to 6%, and additional wage increases later in the contract that could have increased average pay by about 20% over the six years. And it had a cost-of-living adjustment that would give them additional pay based up other rate inflation.

But more than 90% of the UAW members at Deere voted no and went on strike, and then stayed on strike after rejecting a subsequent deal. They finally returned to work after five weeks after a third vote on a similar package passed.

Striking workers at cereal maker Kellogg also rejected a tentative deal and decided to stay on strike in December before finally agreeing to deal weeks later.

And only 50.3% of film production workers voted in favor of a deal last fall that achieved virtually all bargaining goals of their union, a contract that averted a strike by 63,000 technicians, artisans and craftspeople which could have brought production of movies, television and streaming shows to a halt.

One rail union has already voted no

A smaller railroad union has already voted to reject the tentative agreement — the unit of the Machinists union that has 5,000 members working as mechanics for locomotive and track equipment and facility maintenance personnel. But that union is not preparing to go on strike immediately and instead will try to seek a new deal by the end of the month. The deal reached with the engineers and conductors could affect those negotiations.

Thursday’s tentative agreement for the railroad deal gives engineers and conductors much of what they were demanding. It includes changes in work rules that forced more than 50,000 members of the two unions to be “on call,” and ready to report to work on short notice, as much as seven days a week. It gives them protection against discipline or firing if they were not able to report to work because they were seeking medical help or even hospitalized. Those scheduling rules did not apply to more than 50,000 other union members at the railroads, and most of the other unions had reached tentative agreements before Wednesday night.

The deals give all the unions an immediate 14% raise, and backpay dating back to 2020. Total wage increases during the five-year life of the contract came to 24%, and also gives them $1,000 cash bonuses in each of the five years. Together the backpay and past bonuses will mean the average employee will get an $11,000 payment upon ratification of the contract.

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