US railroad workers vote down proposed contract

A strike could freeze up to 30 percent of cargo shipments as workers voice frustration over quality-of-life issues.

Unused oil tank cars are pictured on Western New York & Pennsylvania Railroad tracks outside Hinsdale, New York
Railroad companies have refused to budge on issues such as paid sick leave for workers, raising the possibility of a nationwide strike that could prompt intervention by the US Congress [File: Lindsay DeDario/Reuters]

Members of the largest railroad union in the United States have voted against a potential contract deal, raising the possibility of a strike.

In a vote on Monday, train and engine service workers in the transportation division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) rejected a tentative deal that was reached in September.

“The ball is now in the railroads’ court. Let’s see what they do. They can settle this at the bargaining table,” said SMART-TD president Jeremy Ferguson in a statement.

Union voters cited unmet quality of life issues, including demanding schedules, among the reasons for rejecting the deal.

Railroad companies, meanwhile, have refused to budge on issues like paid sick leave and have not indicated that they are willing to resume negotiations, raising the possibility of intervention by the United States Congress to avoid a massive strike that could roil the country’s supply chain.

The vote comes amid an uptick in labour organising in the US, as workers push for greater compensation and better working conditions.

While SMART-TD members rejected the contract on Monday, another large railroad union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), voted in its favour. Both unions, along with 10 smaller ones, must approve new contracts to avoid a strike.

Seven of the 12 unions previously approved the deal. Three voted against it but agreed to extend a strike deadline until early December.

The deal stems from an emergency board convened by US President Joe Biden earlier this year to avoid costly freight disruptions. A rail shutdown could freeze up to 30 percent of US cargo shipments by weight, impacting various sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing and retail.

Biden’s Presidential Emergency Board issued a 124-page report in August that laid the groundwork for the five-year contract deal. The proposal includes a cumulative 24 percent raise for workers and a $5,000 bonus over five years. Railroad companies have called the agreement the most “generous wage package in almost 50 years”.

The US Congress has the power to impose contract terms if an agreement is not reached in time to avoid a strike. Business groups have urged Biden, who helped broker the tentative contract in September, to be prepared to intervene.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called a shutdown “completely unacceptable” last month and said it was the “responsibility of the parties involved to resolve this issue”.

The group that negotiates on behalf of railroad companies stated on Monday that unions should not expect to receive more than was outlined by the emergency board.

If Congress were to intervene, it is not clear which group that intervention would favour. Republican lawmakers could push unions to accept the terms laid out by the Presidential Emergency Board, while Democratic lawmakers could push for additional concessions from the railroads.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies