With a strike looming, railroad unions and management head back to negotiating table

With a crippling freight rail strike looming in two weeks, leaders of four railroad unions and management of the major US freight railroads are due back at the negotiating table Tuesday afternoon.

It will be the first joint negotiating session for the four unions whose rank-and-file members rejected the five-year labor agreements similar to deals accepted by the eight other rail unions in recent months.

The latest no vote came from the largest union, the transportation division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail Transportation union, or SMART-TD, which represents 28,000 conductors, brakemen and other workers. About 51% of those members voted against the deal reached in a 20-hour bargaining session in September, just hours before a previous strike deadline.

“A strike could be averted. The ball is back in the carriers’ hands at this point,” SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson told CNN Tuesday. “It will be a difficult process. We will do our best. We want to keep America moving.”

A potentially damaging strike

All four unions whose members voted no on ratification are now set to go on strike at 12:01 am ET on December 9. The Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen moved its strike date back to that date on Tuesday so that the four unions could be in sync.

If any one of the unions goes on strike, it would be honored by all 12 unions, which would bring US freight rail service to a halt. That would be a big blow to still struggling supply chains and the US economy, since 30% of the nation’s freight, measured by weight and distance traveled, moves by rail.

A prolonged strike could cause shortages and higher prices for goods such as gasoline, food and automobiles.

Why some unions didn’t ratify the deal

The rejected deals would have been the biggest raises in 50 years for union members. They include an immediate 14% raise with back pay dating to 2020, as well as pay raises totaling 24% during the four-year life of the contracts, which run through 2024. Union members also would receive cash bonuses of $1,000 a year.

All told, the backpay and bonuses would give union members an average payment of $11,000 per worker once the deal is ratified.

But it’s not the pay that has been the sticking point in the negotiations. It’s the work rules involving scheduling, staffing levels and the lack of paid sick time, which the tentative agreements do not include. That prompted opposition, even within the unions whose members narrowly voted to ratify.

“Some of this vote I think wasn’t necessarily a referendum vote against the contract as much as it was against their employers,” said Ferguson. “Members aren’t necessarily voting on the money issues. It’s quality of life, and how they’re treated. When big corporations cut too deep and they expect everybody else to pick up the pace, it becomes intolerable. You don’t have family time, you don’t have time to get adequate rest.”

Hope for a deal

The railroads have expressed hope that they will be able to reach new deals that can be accepted by rank-and-file members.

“There’s absolutely opportunities if a ratification fails the first time to sit down and come to additional agreements … and get the [tentative agreements] ratified,” Ian Jefferies of the Association of American Railroads, the industry trade group, said in an interview last week.

Jefferies said negotiated agreements would be the “best outcome” of the revived talks, but he added that if deals can’t be reached, the industry believes it can get quick, bi-partisan action from Congress to block or end a strike.

Political intervention

“I don’t think it’s anyone’s goal to get Congress involved, but Congress has shown a willingness historically to intervene if necessary,” Jefferies said. He pointed to comments from Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who “made clear on CNN less than two weeks ago that Congress would need to intervene, in his opinion, if voluntary agreements weren’t reached,” he said.

While President Joe Biden doesn’t have the authority at this point in the process to unilaterally order the railroad workers to stay on the job, as he did in July, he would need to sign off on any Congressional action for it to take effect.

Tuesday White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre repeated earlier White House comments that “a shutdown is unacceptable because of the harm it would inflict on jobs, families.” But she wouldn’t answer questions as to whether or not Biden is prepared to agree to Congressional action mandating a contract that workers find unacceptable.

“We are asking the parties involved, to come together in good faith and resolve this,” she said, adding that “the President is directly involved” in discussions once again.

The unions don’t want Congress to intervene, arguing that only by retaining the option of a strike can unions have the leverage they need to win improvements in the contract language that will win approval of their membership.

“There’s no movement at the table,” Michael Baldwin, the president of the signalmen’s union, told CNN Business Tuesday. “I don’t know where Congress is on the issue of intervening, but I think the railroads are banking on Congress preventing a strike.”

Business groups are already calling on Congress to block a strike, but the unions are opposed to Congressional action, arguing the best way to reach a deal is to maintain the strike threat and put pressure on management to settle.

Ferguson said he has not had a chance to talk to anyone from the Labor Department since his union’s no vote was announced early Monday, but he expects to do so Tuesday.

“We will see where it goes,” he said. “I know the White House is watching, I know everyone is paying attention so I’m sure it’s going to pick up steam as we move into next week.”

— CNN’s Betsy Klein and Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report

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