Why is the nation once again on the brink of a devastating freight rail strike?

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CNN Business

In September, President Joe Biden, the most pro-union president in recent history, became personally involved in the negotiations that led to a tentative labor agreement that averted a strike at the nation’s major freight railroads. It was an agreement he hailed as a “victory for tens of thousands of rail workers.”

But many of those workers did not see it that way.

And as a result, rank-and-file members of four of the 12 unions have voted against the ratification votes, starting the clock on a potentially catastrophic industry-wide strike that could begin in December. 9 at 12:01 a.m. ET.

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

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

The interim agreements made some improvements on these issues, but they did not get closer to what the union was looking for. Anger among the rank and file over staffing levels and scheduling rules that could penalize them and cost them pay for taking a sick day had been building for a year. Working through the pandemic only brought the issues more front and center. And that, along with the record profits many of the railroads posted last year and likely this year, caused many workers to vote against it.

“Some of that vote, I think, was not necessarily a referendum against the contract as much as it was against their employers,” said Jeremey Ferguson, president of the transportation division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail Transportation union, the largest railway union representing 28,000 drivers. Its members voted against the tentative deal in voting results announced Monday.

“Members don’t necessarily vote on money issues,” he told CNN on Tuesday. “It’s the quality of life and how they’re treated. When big corporations cut too much and expect everyone else to catch up, it becomes intolerable. You don’t have time for family, you don’t have time for proper rest.”

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 Trainers (BLET), the second largest rail 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 the job or return to work under the terms of a contract that could to be even worse than those who rejected.

There are many reasons why the nation is now on the precipice of a strike, some dating back nearly a century to the passage of the Railroad Labor Act.

Approved in 1926, it is it was one of the first labor laws in the country and put all kinds of restrictions on railroad workers’ strikes that don’t exist for union members in most other companies.

While the law may allow Congress to eventually block a strike or order union members to return to work once a strike begins, unions argue that limiting the right to strike has weakened the momentum that unions have they need to reach labor agreements acceptable to the majority of their members.

“Congress not participating would obviously give the unions strength,” said Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainers (BLET). He said other companies know they suffer costs if a union goes on strike that the railroads don’t. they have to pay

A strike would be a blow to the nation the supply chain is still struggling, as 30% of the country’s goods, measured by weight and distance traveled, move 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 falling into recession, would be severely damaged by a prolonged rail strike. There could be shortages of everything from gasoline to food to automobiles, driving up the prices of all those goods. Factories could be forced to close temporarily due to a lack of parts they need.

That’s why many expect Congress to step in and impose a contract on members of the four unions that have reached proposed agreements.

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

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

For Jefferies, the “best outcome” is for the railroads and unions that have rejected the deals to agree to new deals that can be ratified by the base. One rail union, the train drivers, initially rejected the deal, only to ratify a slightly revised deal, although only 52% of members voted in favor.

“There are absolutely opportunities if a ratification fails the first time to sit down and make additional agreements and pull it out and get the [tentative agreement] ratified,” Jefferies said.

But unions say the railroads are unwilling to negotiate on issues such as the disease because they are counting on Congress to give them a deal they want, even if record profits (or near-record profits) reported by the railroads suggest that companies have the resources to give the unions what they ask for.

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

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

Some union supporters who won’t be back in Congress next year might not even attend the Lame Duck session, he added. And hopes by 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 might vote to block or end a strike rather than blame themselves for the disruptions a strike would cause.

“I didn’t get the sense that they had the stomach to let a strike turn the economy upside down,” he said.

Unions intend to lobby Congress to try to block any legislation that would order them to stay on the job or return to work shortly after a strike begins. But they expect to be outmaneuvered by railroad lobbyists 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 difficult spot, as the union president would find himself caught between angry union allies who want to be allowed to strike or risk the economic upheaval that the strike would cause.

While 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 sign any congressional action into effect.

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

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

If Congress acts, the Railroad Jobs Act is doing what it was designed to do, railroads say.

“The purpose of the Railroad Labor Act was to reduce the likelihood of a work stoppage,” said AAR’s Jefferies. “And he’s been very effective at doing that. The last work stoppage we had was 30 years ago, and it lasted 24 hours before the overwhelming bipartisan Congress. [action to end the strike]. I think all parties agree that a work stoppage or a grid shutdown is not helpful to anyone.”

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