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

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CNN Business

In September, President Joe Biden, the most union-friendly president in recent history, became personally involved in negotiations that resulted in an interim labor agreement that averted a strike at major railroads in country freight. It was a deal he hailed as a “victory for tens of thousands of railway workers”.

But many of those workers didn’t see it that way.

And as a result, rank-and-file members of four of the 12 unions voted no in ratification votes, setting the countdown to a potentially catastrophic industry-wide strike that could begin Dec. 1:01 a.m. ET. .

While the rejected contracts would have given workers their biggest pay increases in 50 years – 14% immediate increases with back pay and 24% increases over five years, plus $ 1,000 in cash bonuses each year wages and the economy were never the big issues in these talks.

There were scheduling rules that kept many workers on call seven days a week, even when not working, the lack of sick pay common to workers in other industries, and staffing shortages.

The tentative agreements have brought some improvements to these issues, but they have not get closer to what the union was looking for. Anger among the base over staffing levels and scheduling rules that could penalize them and cost them to pay for taking a sick day had been building for a year. Working during the pandemic has only brought the issues to the fore. And that, coupled with the record profits reported by many railroads last year and likely again this year, prompted many workers to vote no.

“I think part of that vote wasn’t necessarily a referendum vote against the contract as much as it was against their employers,” said Jeremey Ferguson, president of the Sheet Metal, Air union’s transportation division. , Rail Transportation, the largest rail union representing 28,000 drivers. Its members voted against the tentative agreement in voting results announced on Monday.

“Members don’t necessarily vote on money matters,” he told CNN on Tuesday. “It’s the quality of life and how they’re treated. When big companies cut too deep and expect everyone to pick up the pace, it becomes intolerable. You don’t have time with your family, you don’t have time to rest enough.

There was widespread opposition to the contract, even in some of the unions whose members ratified the agreement.

Only 54% of members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Officers (BLET), the second-largest railway union, voted for the deal. Union members across the industry who opposed the proposed deal did so knowing Congress could vote to order them to stay at work or return to work under a contract. who could be even worse than those they rejected.

There are many reasons why the country is now on the verge of a strike, some dating back almost a century to the passing of the Railway Labor Act.

Passed in 1926, it was one of the first labor laws in the country and imposed all sorts of restrictions on railroad strikes that do not exist for union members in most other companies.

While the law could potentially allow Congress to block a strike or order union members back to work once a strike begins, unions say limiting the right to strike has weakened the influence that unions have had. necessary to conclude working arrangements acceptable to the majority of their members.

“Staying out of Congress would obviously give unions leverage,” said Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET). must pay.

A strike would be a blow to the nation supply chain still in difficulty, since 30% of national freight, measured by weight and distance traveled, moves by rail. It is impossible to run a 21st century economy without this 19th century technology.

The US economy, which many believe is at risk of tipping into recession, would be badly damaged by a prolonged railroad strike. Shortages of everything from gasoline to food to automobiles could arise, driving up the prices of all these commodities. Factories could be forced to close temporarily due to the lack of parts they need.

That’s why many expect Congress to step in and force a contract on members of the four unions who haven’t yet reached the proposed deals.

“I don’t think it’s anyone’s goal to get Congress involved, but Congress has always shown a willingness to step in if necessary,” said Ian Jefferies, CEO of the Association of American Railroads, the group industry trade.

Would a divided Lame Duck Congress be able to find a bipartisan agreement to act, and act quickly, to prevent or end a strike? “It’s not a political issue. It’s an economic issue,” he said.

For Jefferies, the “best outcome” is for the railroads and unions that rejected the deals to settle on new deals that can be ratified by the ranks. A railway union, the Machinists, initially rejected the deal, only to ratify a slightly revised deal, albeit with only 52% of members voting in favour.

“There are absolutely opportunities if a ratification fails the first time around to sit down and make additional deals and publish them and get the [tentative agreement] ratified,” Jefferies said.

But unions say the railroads are unwilling to negotiate on issues like sick leave because they’re counting on Congress to give them the deal they want, even if record profits (or quasi records) reported by the railways suggest that companies have the resources to give unions what they are asking for.

“They’re telegraphing that they expect Congress to save them,” said Pierce, president of the engineers’ union. He and the other member union leaders fear Congress will act, even though Democrats, who still control both chambers in the current session of Lame Duck, were reluctant to vote to block a strike in September as the strike deadline approaches.

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

Some union supporters who won’t return to Congress next year might not even attend the Lame Duck session, he added. And the hopes of railroads and business groups for quick action by Congress could be derailed by other items on Congress’ busy agenda.

Still, Pierce and other union leaders worry that even some pro-union members of Congress could vote to block or end a strike rather than be blamed for the disruption a strike would cause.

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

The unions intend to lobby Congress to try to block any legislation ordering them to continue working or return to work soon after a strike begins. But they expect to be overtaken by lobbyists from the railroads and other business interests.

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

A strike would again put Biden in a tough spot, as the pro-union president would be caught between the wrath of labor allies who want to be allowed to strike or the risk of economic upheaval the strike would cause.

Although Biden does not have the authority at this point in the process to unilaterally order railroad workers to stay on the job, as he did in July, he would have to approve any congressional action for it to take effect.

On Tuesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre repeated earlier comments from the White House that “a shutdown is unacceptable because of the damage it would cause to jobs, to families.” But she would not answer questions about whether or not Biden is prepared to accept congressional action demanding a contract that workers find unacceptable.

“We ask the parties concerned 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 acts, the Railroad Labor Act does what it was designed to do, the railroads say.

“The purpose of the Railway Labor Act was to reduce the likelihood of a work stoppage,” said AAR’s Jefferies. “And it’s been remarkably effective in doing that.” The last work stoppage we had was 30 years ago, and it lasted 24 hours before the bipartisan Congress overwhelmed [action to end the strike]. I think all parties agree that a work stoppage or network shutdown is of no use to anyone.

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