Why the country is once again close to a devastating freight rail strike

New York
CNN Business

In September, President Joe Biden, the most union-friendly president in recent history, personally participates in negotiations who reached pre-employment deal this prevented a strike on the nation’s main freight railroads. it was a deal hailed as a “victory for tens of thousands of railway workers.

But many of these workers did not think so.

And as a result, the rank and file of four of the 12 unions voted against the ratification votes, setting off a potentially catastrophic industry-wide strike that could begin in December. 9 at 00:01 ET.

Whereas the rejected contracts would provide workers with the biggest pay raise in 50 years – an immediate 14% raise with debt paid and a 24% raise over five years, plus cash bonuses of $1,000 each year. wages and the economy have never been big issues in these negotiations.

There were scheduling rules that forced many workers to be on call seven days a week even when they weren’t working, a lack of sickness benefits common to workers in other industries, and a shortage of staff.

The preliminary agreements have made some improvements in these matters, but not get closer to what the union was striving for. The anger of front-line employees about staffing and scheduling rules that could penalize them and deprive them of sick pay has been building up for years. Overcoming the pandemic has only brought problems to the fore. And that, and the record profits reported by many railroads last year and likely again this year, prompted many workers to vote no.

“Some of those votes, I think, weren’t necessarily a vote in a referendum against the contract, but rather against their employers,” said Jeremy Ferguson, president of the sheet metal, air and rail union’s transportation division. the largest railway union, which represents 28,000 conductors. Its members voted against the preliminary agreement in the voting results announced on Monday.

“Members don’t necessarily vote on monetary matters,” he said. told CNN on Tuesday. “It’s the quality of life and how they are treated. When big corporations cut too deep and expect everyone else to pick up the pace, it becomes unbearable. You don’t have time for your family, you don’t have time for proper rest.”

The contract met with widespread opposition even in some unions, whose members ratified it.

Only 54% of the members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Machinists (BLET), the railroad’s second largest union, voted in favor of the deal. Union members across the industry who opposed the proposed deal did so knowing that Congress could vote to order them to stay on or return to work under the terms of the contract, which could be even worse than those they rejected.

There are many reasons why the country is now on the brink of a strike, some of which began nearly a century ago when the Railway Labor Act was passed.

Passed in 1926, he was one of the first labor laws in the country and placed all sorts of restrictions on railroad strikes that don’t exist for union members in most other factories.

While the law may allow Congress to eventually block a strike or order union members to return to work once a strike has begun, unions argue that restricting the right to strike has weakened the leverage unions need to reach labor agreements acceptable to most of their members.

“Congressional withdrawal from this will obviously give the unions leverage,” said Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive and Train Workers (BLET). must pay.

A strike would be a blow to the nation still struggling supply chain, since 30% of the country’s freight traffic, measured by weight and distance traveled, travels by rail. It is impossible to run the 21st century economy without this 19th century technology.

The US economy, which, according to many, is under threat falling into recessionwill be seriously damaged as a result of a prolonged railroad strike. Lack of everything from gasoline to food and cars, driving up the prices of all these products. Factories may be forced to close temporarily due to lack of parts they need.

This is why many expect Congress to intervene and impose a contract on the members of the four unions who have reached the proposed agreements.

“I don’t think anyone’s goal is to get Congress involved, but Congress has historically shown a willingness to intervene when necessary,” he said. Ian JeffreysCEO of the Association of American Railroads, an industry trade group.

Can a divided Lame Duck Congress find a bipartisan agreement to act on, and act quickly to prevent or end the strike? “This is not a political issue. This is an economic issue,” he said.

Per Jeffreys, the “best outcome” for railroads and unions that have rejected deals is to agree to new deals that can be ratified by lay members. One railway workers’ union, Machinists, initially rejected the deal, only to ratify a slightly modified agreement, although only 52% of members voted in favor.

“If ratification does not take place the first time, there is an opportunity to sit down and come to additional agreements, publish it and get [tentative agreement] ratified,” Jeffreys said.

But unions say railroads are unwilling to negotiate over issues like sick leave because they are counting on Congress to give them the deal they want, even if the record profits (or near-record profits) reported by the railroads roads suggests that companies have the resources to give the unions what they want.

“They’re telegraphing that they’re expecting Congress to bail them out,” Pierce, president of the engineering union, said. He and other members of union leaders concerned that Congress would take action even though the Democrats, who still control both houses in the current Lame Duck session, were reluctant to vote to block the strike in September as the strike deadline approached.

“It’s hard to say what Congress will do,” Pierce said.

He added that some unionists who do not return to Congress next year may not even attend the Lame Duck session. And the hopes of railroads and business groups for quick congressional action could be undermined by other items on the busy congressional agenda.

However, Pierce and other union leaders fear that even some pro-union members of Congress might vote to block or end the strike rather than blame them for the disruptions that spark the strikes.

“I didn’t feel like they had the guts to let the strike destroy the economy,” he said.

The unions intend to lobby Congress to try to block any legislation directing them to keep working or return to work shortly after the strike begins. But they expect railroad and other business lobbyists to outgun them.

“I expect they will have one lobbyist for every member of Congress,” Pierce said.

Strike again would put Biden in a difficult positionas a pro-union president would be trapped between angry union allies who want to be allowed to go on strike, or the risk of the economic disruption that a strike would cause.

Although Biden has no authority at this stage of the process unilaterally order rail workers to stay at workas in July, he will need to sign any act of Congress for it to take effect.

On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre echoed earlier comments made by the White House that “the closure is unacceptable because of the harm it will cause to jobs and families.” But she didn’t answer questions about whether Biden was willing to go along with congressional action to mandate a contract that workers say is unacceptable.

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

If Congress does act, the Railroad Labor Act will do what it was designed to do, the railroads say.

“The purpose of the Railroad Labor Act was to reduce the likelihood of work stoppages,” AAR’s Jeffreys said. “And it was amazingly effective at that. Our last work stoppage was 30 years ago, and it lasted 24 hours before an overwhelming bipartisan Congressional decision [action to end the strike]. I think all parties agree that suspending operations or shutting down the network won’t help anyone.”