(CNN) – 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 this 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 percent 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."
Three of the unions, including SMART-TD, are set to strike as soon as December 9, while a fourth, which represents workers who maintain and operate the signal systems, could strike at 12:01 a.m. ET on December 5. That deadline may be pushed to December 9 as well.
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 percent 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.
The rejected deals would have been lucrative for union members. They include an immediate 14-percent raise with back pay dating to 2020, as well as pay raises totaling 24 percent 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."
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.
"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.
The White House said Monday it is looking to labor and industry parties to resolve the dispute on their own ahead of the December deadlines.
"As the President has said from the beginning, a shutdown is unacceptable because of the harm it would inflict on jobs, families, farms, businesses and communities across the country," a White House official told CNN.
The official added: "A majority of unions have voted to ratify the tentative agreement, and the best option is still for the parties to resolve this themselves."
Asked Monday by CNN's Jeremy Diamond what he was doing to avert a rail strike, President Joe Biden responded, "We're going to be talking about that today."
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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