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Impasse in labor talks continues as possible freight rail strike looms

Union reps seek to reach agreement before Sept. 16; coalition survey reflects worker discontent

A railroad worker. (Photo: Shutterstock/APChanel)

The remaining unions that are still negotiating with the freight railroads on a new labor contract are grappling over wages and benefits, while a union coalition’s survey points to broad potential support for a strike.

Meetings last week between labor and the freight railroads didn’t lead to any tentative agreement language that the operating crafts could accept, according to a joint statement from the heads of two of the larger rail unions.

However, union representatives “remain committed” to negotiations over key issues such as wages, quality of life, attendance and voluntary time off, said Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), and Jeremy Ferguson, president of SMART-TD, in the Friday statement. SMART-TD stands for International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — Transportation Division.

“Our goal is and always has been to reach a voluntary agreement that is worthy of our membership’s consideration. As we approach the final stages of the steps of the Railway Labor Act, we appreciate our members’ continued support,” the joint statement said. “We have made it abundantly clear to the Carriers that we are prepared and willing to exercise every legal option available to us, to achieve the compensation and working conditions that we and our families rightfully expect and deserve.”

While BLET and SMART-TD were unable last week to reach a tentative agreement with the freight railroads, three smaller unions — the Transportation Communications Union (TCU)/IAM (International Association of Machinists), Brotherhood of Railway Carmen and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers — did. Those unions are now sending that agreement to their members for ratification.

Those three unions represent nearly 11% of the more than 140,000 rail union members seeking a new contract. That contract calls for a 24% wage increase during the five-year period from 2020-24, with a 14.1% pay bump effective immediately.

“It’s been three years since our national freight members’ last raise. If there was any chance of reaching a better agreement, we would still be bargaining,” said TCU President Arthur Maratea in a Monday news release. “Failing to reach agreement would mean our members in national handling would not get to vote on its terms — and we would have to rely on Congress to impose whatever terms it decided, which will take months to reach. I strongly believe our members should be the ones to vote and decide their future.”

Per the Railway Labor Act, the remaining unions would be able to legally stage a work stoppage or strike after a cooling-off period ends on Sept. 16. That date is a month after the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), a three-person independent panel appointed by President Joe Biden, gave the unions and the railroads a 124-page report with recommendations on how to resolve the contract negotiations impasse.

PEB’s recommendations are meant to serve as a jumping-off point for producing a final contract, so the end result may differ based on what all sides negotiate.

A new labor deal has been in the works since January 2020, but the negotiations had failed to progress. A federal mediation board took up the negotiations but released the parties from those efforts earlier this summer. The PEB became involved in the process and conducted hearings in July and August. 

Survey results pan PEB recommendations ‘as-is’

Union leaders are caught between needing contract negotiations to progress and wanting to address workplace issues and low morale among members.

A survey released Tuesday by Railway Workers United, an interunion caucus made up of members representing all crafts, found that 95.8% of the 3,165 survey respondents believed that railroaders should be allowed to exercise their right to strike on or after Sept. 16, and 93% felt they would vote “no” if the PEB’s recommendations were offered “as-is” as part of a tentative agreement.

Asked whether the PEB recommendations met their hopes and expectations for a good contract, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 representing the worst, about 29% of respondents gave a score of 1 while nearly 90% gave a score of 5 or under.

Of all the unions seeking a new labor agreement, 42% of survey respondents were represented by BLET and SMART-TD.

Of the survey’s respondents, well over half had over 10 years of seniority in the industry. Fifty-one percent had 10 to 20 years of industry experience, while nearly 20% had 20 to 30 years. Over 19% had five to 10 years of experience.

A vast majority of survey respondents — 97.6% — said they had read PEB’s report.

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.