The biggest rail union rejects the labor deal, raising the risk of a crippling strike

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America faces a growing risk of a crippling nationwide freight strike in two weeks. The rank-and-file members of the nation’s largest railroad union, which represents the industry’s drivers, rejected a tentative labor agreement with the freight railroads, the union announced Monday.

The nation’s second-largest railroad union, which represents engineers, ratified its own contract. But the fact that the directors have not ratified their agreement is another setback to efforts to avoid a strike.

With these votes, the 12 rail unions have now completed their ratification process, with members of eight of the unions voting in favor of the agreements and four against. The four unions that have voted will stay out of work until at least early next month as negotiations continue to try to avoid a strike that could cause widespread disruption to the country’s still-struggling supply chain and wider economy .

If even one of the dozen railroad unions went on strike, the other 11 would honor the pickets, shutting down the railroads.

If a strike continues for an extended period, it could lead to shortages and higher prices of goods such as fuel and food. If the four unions that rejected the deals can’t reach new deals before strike deadlines, Congress could order railroad workers to stay on the job or go back to work.

The two unions that announced the results of the voting Monday they are the transportation division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, Transportation (SMART-TD) union, which represents about 28,000 drivers, and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainers (BLET), which represents about 24,000 engineers. Engineers and drivers make up the two-person train crews.

The two unions reached tentative agreements in September in a marathon 20-hour bargaining session just hours before their previous strike deadlines.

President Joe Biden called these agreements “a victory for tens of thousands of railroad workers and for their dignity and the dignity of their work.” He had intervened directly in the final round of talks, but his praise of the deals was not enough to win the approval of rank-and-file members of the directors’ union.

The agreements almost won the necessary support to be ratified by both unions. One was ratified by the engineers with a 53.5% yes vote, while the other was a very narrow defeat by the directors with a small majority or a near majority voting in favor of ratification.

Ultimately, the directors’ vote failed because union rules require each of the union’s five classes of workers to approve the deal for it to pass.

While 64.5 percent of “yard managers,” which includes 1,300 union members, supported the deal, 50.87 percent of the union’s train and engine service members voted against it of the ratification. The union did not release vote totals from SMART-TD members.

The no vote follows rejections of similar contracts by rank-and-file members of three other rail unions: one representing track maintenance workers, another whose members maintain and operate the signal system and a third representing locomotive mechanics and welders.

The Association of American Railroads, the industry’s trade group, told CNN last week that railroads still hope to reach new deals that can be ratified by members without a strike. He repeated that hope Monday after the last vote.

“While the railroads remain committed to reaching agreements with these remaining unions, the timeframe for these to occur is short,” the AAR statement said.

One such union that previously rejected its agreement, the Brotherhood of Road Maintenance Employees Division (BMWED), announced Monday that it was moving the strike date to December. 9, to be in sync with the strike date of the directors and one of the other unions.

And he suggested the four unions should negotiate together ahead of a December joint deal. 9 strike date.

The only union that could strike before December. 9, the Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen [BRS], could strike at 12:01 a.m. ET in December. 5. Last week, BRS president Michael Baldwin told CNN that the union had no intention of delaying its strike deadline “at this time.”

Even within many of the unions that voted for the deals there was significant opposition, as demonstrated by the 46.5% of engineers who voted no.

The agreements being overturned are lucrative for union members. They include an immediate 14% raise with back pay dating back to 2020, as well as wage increases totaling 24% over the four-year life of the contracts, which will run through 2024. Union members will also receive bonuses in cash of $1,000 per year.

All told, the back pay and bonuses will give union members an average payout of $11,000 per worker once the deal is ratified.

But it is not the pay that has been the sticking point in the negotiations. It’s the labor standards and quality-of-life issues, such as staffing levels and paid sick time, that the interim agreements don’t include.

So far, railroad management has rejected union negotiators’ proposals to add sick pay as a way to gain grassroots ratification.

Congress is already facing calls from a wide range of business groups to act to prevent a strike. About 30% of the country’s freight moves by rail, when measured by the weight of the freight and the distance it travels.

The AAR joined these calls for congressional action if new agreements cannot be reached.

“Congress has historically stepped in to prevent disruptions to the rail system. In the event that the four unions continue to be unwilling to enter into agreements … Congress must be prepared to act and reinstate the terms supported by the majority of the unions , ensuring safety for rail customers and the wider economy,” he said in his statement.

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who was involved in the negotiations that led to the agreements that averted a strike in September, told CNN earlier this month that while he prefers to reach another round of negotiated agreements, Congress would need to act to prevent a strike.

The White House said Monday they are looking to the labor and industrial parties involved in the negotiations to resolve a rail dispute on their own before a critical December deadline.

“As the president has said from the beginning, a shutdown is unacceptable because of the damage it would do to jobs, families, farms, businesses and communities across the country,” a White House official told CNN.

The official added: “The majority of the unions have voted to ratify the provisional agreement, and the best option remains for the parties to resolve it themselves.”

Asked Monday by CNN’s Jeremy Diamond what he was doing to prevent a rail strike, President Biden replied, “We’re going to talk about that today.”

But unlike in July, when Biden was able to prevent unions from going on strike by appointing a panel to try to find a solution both sides could live with, it’s now up to Congress, not Biden, to act on whether new labor deals can . it doesn’t come

All unions oppose congressional intervention and want to be allowed to strike to pressure the railroads to meet their bargaining goals, though they would not oppose the Labor Department re-facilitating negotiations.

“We do not believe it should require the influence or cajoling of any outside party to get the railroads to be reasonable on behalf of their companies or workers,” the BMWED said in a statement. “But it would be helpful if these third parties started to facilitate the discussion. It’s clear that the railways are not going to engage with us in a meaningful way unless they are forced to.

An added challenge: it would take bipartisan cooperation in the “Lame Duck” session of Congress to pass legislation that would prevent or quickly end a strike.

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

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