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Rail union pushes back date for potential strike

Maintenance of way workers extend cooling-off period until early December

Working on track. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way – Employes Division (BMWED) will not go on strike after Nov. 19, opting instead to hold off on any potential action until early December and saying that the date change will enable the railroads to come up with their best offer without threat of a looming walkout.

The period that BMWED members must maintain the status quo at their respective sites will be  aligned with three other unions that have yet to ratify their labor agreements. Those three unions — the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division (SMART) and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS) — have yet to vote or revote on whether to ratify their tentative labor contracts. 

This status quo period is also known as a “cooling-off period,” and during this time neither the unions nor the railroads are allowed to engage in any work stoppages or self-help measures, per federal law.

The status quo periods for BLET and SMART-TD are in place until just after midnight on Dec. 9, and so BMWED’s period to maintain the status quo will end then as well, the union said in a Wednesday announcement. BMWED had said previously that its status quo period would end after Nov. 19.

BRS’ status quo period lasts until Dec. 4, but there is a clause that the period could slide back to Dec. 9 should ratification fail for one of the operating crafts, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

Extending the status quo period allows BMWED and BRS to continue negotiations with the railroads. Members of BRS and BMWED rejected their initial tentative agreements, and BMWED said Wednesday that there is still an inability to reach a consensus with the railroads on sick leave policies.

BMWED also chose to extend the status quo period until after midterm election fervor has subsided. 

“We will now have an opportunity to educate Congress and obtain a better bill written for railroad workers, not the railroads,” BMWED said. “Joining with the BRS and possibly the operating crafts will also improve our chances of not having Congress intervene on the railroads behalf and instead allow us to strike if necessary. This ultimately strengthens our chances to get paid sick leave.”

BMWED noted that there is already a bill, introduced by Republican Sens. Richard Burr and Roger Wicker, that prohibit the unions from striking and impose the tentative agreement as-is and without any railroad-specific agreements for away-from-home expenses.

The union strongly disagreed with the railroads’ actions to wind down operations prior to any potential strikes, saying that these actions “would be a premature exercise of self-help by the railroads and a violation of their common carrier obligations to provide services to their customers.” BMWED also said these actions would serve as a “manipulative attempt to instigate Congress to intervene against the interests of railroad workers.”

“This is the railroads’ last chance to do the right thing by voluntarily agreeing to provide paid sick leave to all employees. If the railroads fail to give up one penny of every dollar of profit for paid sick leave for their highly valued employees by December 8th, and there is either a strike or lockout or both, then the railroads will be responsible for the imposition of a shutdown of their operations and the economic harms to its customers, the country’s economic supply chain and the entire U.S. economy,” BMWED said.

“Congress should not intervene and rescue the railroads if they continue to refuse to provide railroad workers with paid sick leave. But, if Congress does intervene, then we demand that Congress must side with the workers by imposing the tentative national agreement and carrier specific agreements along with paid sick leave for all railroad workers,” the union continued.

In response to BMWED’s decision to extend the status quo period, the National Carriers Conference Committee, the group representing the freight railroads at the negotiating table, said the railroads “will remain engaged with BMWED throughout the extended cooling off period and will continue to seek an agreement based on the framework recommended by Presidential Emergency Board 250. Agreements based on the PEB’s recommendations were endorsed by President Biden as a ‘win for tens of thousands of rail workers’ and have been ratified by the members of seven other unions.” 

NCCC also said the cooling off period extension will allow the members of these unions to complete their voting without disruption from the threat of a strike.

AAR said BMWED’s extension enables the unions to complete their ratification votes, as well as provide greater certainty for the economy, rail customers and rail passengers ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.

“This agreement to extend the cooling off period affords all unionized employees the opportunity to vote on their agreements free of a looming strike threat,” said AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies in a news release. “Our goal remains the same — successfully completing this round of bargaining — and we stand ready to reach an agreement with BMWED based upon the Presidential Emergency Board’s recommendations.”

A new labor agreement for each of the 12 unions has been in the works since January 2020, but negotiations between the unions and the railroads failed to progress. In July, President Joe Biden appointed three independent experts to serve on the PEB, which conducted hearings and received testimony from stakeholders about how the unions and railroads could resolve the impasse. PEB issued its recommendations, which were meant to serve as a jumping-off point for a new contract.

So far, seven unions have ratified their agreements, while another three still need to vote on whether to ratify their tentative agreements, according to NCCC. Two of the three include the two biggest unions representing train conductors and engineers, BLET and SMART-TD. 

The seven unions that have approved their agreements are the American Train Dispatchers Association, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Transportation Communications Union, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, the National Conference of Firemen & Oilers, the mechanical and engineering division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) Workers and the rail division of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 19.

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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.