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(CNN) – Rank and file members of another railroad union have rejected a tentative labor deal, a move that further raises the odds that America's freight railroad workers will go on strike sometime next month.
The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen voted against September's tentative agreement, according to results announced Wednesday. The vote was 2,810, or 60.5 percent, against the proposed four-year deal, and 1,820, or 39.2 percent, for it. The union represents more than 6,000 employees of the nation's major freight railroads who install, repair, and maintain the signal systems used to direct trains.
“For the first time that I can remember, the BRS members voted not to ratify a National Agreement, and with the highest participation rate in BRS history,” said Michael Baldwin, president of the BRS, in a statement.
Earlier this month, rank-and-file members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees District (BMWED), which represents about 23,000 track maintenance workers, voted to reject a similar tentative labor deal, setting the stage for a possible strike as soon as Nov. 19.
The National Carriers’ Conference Committee, which negotiates on behalf of the railroads with all the unions, issued a statement saying it was “disappointed” in the results of the vote, but said because of the current cooling off period “the failed ratification does not present risk of an immediate service disruption.”
It's unclear what day the signalmen union would be able to go on strike, Michael Baldwin, the union’s president, told CNN. Under the law that controls rail labor, the unions can go back out on strike after Congress returns to session for five days. But it’s unclear when that clock will start ticking if Congress is only in session briefly before a Thanksgiving recess. He said it is possible that his union and the BMWED might not be able to go on strike until early December.
Labor relations at railroads are subject to a different labor law than the one that governs workers at most US businesses. Railroad unions face limits for when they can strike and can't take action during cooling off periods that follow a “no” vote by membership. Congress can also prevent or end a strike by extending a cooling-off period during which the unions can not strike, or by imposing a contract on union members.
Ahead of the September strike deadline, many business groups were urging Congress to act. However, Democratic leadership expressed reluctance to go against the unions and order them to stay on the job.
Even if Democrats lose control of one or both houses of Congress in the midterm elections, they would still have legislative control during the so-called lame duck session that would run through the end of the year.
Baldwin said he’s also concerned Congress could order the unions to stay on the job, either by imposing a new contract close to what the railroads want, or by extending the cooling period into next year.
“I personally don't think that Congress will allow anyone to shut the economy and its supply chains,” he said.
Sick days the big issue in no vote
Rank and file members of the signalmen union are mostly upset over the lack of paid sick days, said Baldwin.
“That’s the resounding message we heard everywhere,” he said. “Our guys worked through the pandemic. The employers made them quarantine at home and they didn’t get paid.”
In the past, the rail unions agreed to higher pay in return for no sick days except for prolonged medical absences. The tentative deals do not change those provisions.
Members of six of the smaller railroad unions have ratified their contracts despite the lack of sick days. But it appears it could be a sticking point in crafting a deal that the BMWED and signalmen membership will accept.
After BMWED rejected their tentative deal, union leadership proposed adding paid sick days during a bargaining session, only to have management reject the motion out of hand. Baldwin said he will make the same proposal at the negotiating table.
“I anticipate they're going to tell me no as well,” he said. “They’ve denied us ability to bargain in good faith for three years. That's not going to change now.”
Although these unions are smaller than the two that represent conductors and engineers, a strike by any one of the 12 freight rail unions would be honored by the others and cause the nation's major freight railroads to halt operations.
That in turn would create massive problems for the US economy, snarling still-struggling supply chains and triggering widespread bottlenecks and shortages. About 30 percent of US freight, when measured by weight and distance traveled, moves by rail. Prices of goods from gasoline to food to cars could soar if trains halt. In addition, factories could be forced to shut temporarily due to parts shortages. Goods that consumers want to buy during the holiday season could be missing from store shelves.
The rail unions nearly went on strike last month before eleventh-hour deals were reached September 15 with the unions representing conductors and engineers. The tentative deals followed a marathon 20-hour bargaining session that included direct intervention from President Joe Biden and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.
The pending new contracts for all the unions include an immediate 14 percent raise with back pay dating to 2020, and pay raises totaling 24 percent during the four-year life of the contracts, which run from 2020 through 2024. They also give union members cash bonuses of $1,000 a year.
All told, the backpay and bonuses will give union members an average payment of $11,000 per worker once the deal is ratified.
Rank-and-file anger at railroad management
But the deals were difficult to negotiate not because of the financial terms, but because of work rules that the unions said had brought engineers and conductors to a breaking point. Staffing shortages had required crew members to be on call seven days a week, ready to report to work on short notice.
The conductors’ and engineers’ unions won changes in the existing rules as part of the final negotiations to avoid a strike. Union leaders said without those changes, membership would not have ratified the deal.
But there is concern that anger over the existing rules could prompt some members to vote against a new contract as a way of expressing their frustration — even though the rules have been changed.
Union officials are also concerned the BMWED and signal workers unions’ “no” votes are a sign that the contract will be rejected by rank-and-file conductors and engineers. One union official told CNN Business after the BMWED vote last week that the outcome of those votes was now a “toss-up.”
Baldwin said the reduced staffing levels at the railroads in recent years, and the resulting increased workload for the remaining workers, has angered his members, and that's another factor making it difficult to win approval of the deals.
“We have a lot of members who are not happy with the employers, with good reason,’ he said.
Other unions have rejected proposed deals
Rank and file union anger hasn’t just been expressed at railroads. Union members working in other industries have recently balked at approving deals, even when recommended by their leadership. Although most union contracts are ratified, there have been some very high-profile examples of union members voting “no.”
About 10,000 members of the United Auto Workers at farm equipment maker John Deere went on strike last fall after rejecting a tentative agreement. That rejected offer included immediate raises in their base pay of 5 percent to 6 percent, and additional wage increases later in the contract that could have lifted average pay by about 20 percent over the six-year life of the contract. And it had a cost-of-living adjustment that would give workers additional pay based on future inflation.
But more than 90 percent of the UAW members at Deere voted no and went on strike, and then stayed on strike after rejecting a subsequent offer. They finally returned to work after five weeks following a third vote on a similar package.
Striking workers at cereal maker Kellogg also rejected a tentative deal and decided to stay on strike in December before finally agreeing to a contract weeks later.
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