© Suyerry/Dreamstime
Eleventh-Hour Tentative Deal Defers Possible Railroad Strike

Eleventh-Hour Tentative Deal Defers Possible Railroad Strike

Sept. 15, 2022
The new tentative agreement gives railway workers one paid day of sick leave, and improves their ability to take unpaid time off for medical purposes.

Update: President Joe Biden announced Thursday morning that the two remaining unions had come to a tentative agreement, deferring the threat of a national railroad strike. According to reporting from the Washington Post, Thursday’s agreement lets railway workers take unpaid sick leave without penalty and provides them one day of paid sick leave.

The tentative agreement defers the threat of a strike at least until members of rail worker unions vote to approve or reject the contract.

This is a breaking news update on an original article. The original article appears below.

The failure of major U.S freight railroads and twelve railworker unions to come to a mutual agreement may cause yet another supply chain catastrophe by the end of the week. After months of logjammed negotiations, railroad workers will be allowed to legally strike Friday, September 16 after midnight if no deal can be struck.

A national railroad strike would upend an already fragile industrial supply chain. According to the Association of American Railroads, a work stoppage on railroads caused by a strike or lockout could cost the economy as much as $2 billion a day. Deliveries of goods transported by railroads, including automobile parts, food, gasoline and industrial supplies, would slow dramatically and cause prices to start increasing again.

Currently, the two largest unions involved in negotiations—The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and SMART Transportation Division—have yet to sign on to tentative agreements with railroads negotiated by the neutral Presidential Emergency Board, appointed by President Biden to help end the strike in July.

When the PEB’s recommendations were released in August, it started a 30-day “cooling down” period in which lockouts and strikes were prohibited. That period ends Friday, September 16, just after midnight.

The terms recommended by the Emergency Board include substantial wage increases, but the holdout unions say it doesn’t do enough for work conditions. Specifically, the PEB recommended that workers receive an immediate 14.1% wage increase as well as five $1,000 bonuses and adjustments to healthcare premiums, but the holdout unions say it does not do enough to fix severe attendance policies.

In a joint statement released September 11, SMART-TD and BLET said workers have been fired for taking sick days or attending doctor appointments: “Our members are being terminated for getting sick or for attending routine medical visits as we crawl our way out of worldwide pandemic,” the statement reads.

The unions went on to blame poor conditions for underemployment and accuse railroad companies of issuing a de-facto lockout for an embargo of shipments before the end of the cool-off period, calling the latter “corporate terrorism” and asking Congress not to “cave into these scare tactics.”

The National Railway Labor Conference, which is negotiating on behalf of the railroad companies, says on its website that rail employees receive adequate time off and that the PEB rejected proposals from the union to increase paid sick leave and relax attendance policies.

“Rail workers receive up to five weeks of vacation in addition to 14 paid holidays and/or paid leave days,” the NLRC says, adding that operating craft employees can also remove themselves from service temporarily if they “maintain a reasonable level of overall availability.”

“Against this backdrop, it is simply untrue to assert that employees cannot take any time off to attend to things like preventative medical exams,” NLRC added. “The PEB evaluated and expressly rejected the unions’ paid sick leave and attendance policy proposals.”

According to reporting from the Washington Post, President Biden has called union leaders and rail companies to try and encourage them to come to an agreement. In comments to the press at the Detroit auto show September 14, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the administration was “engaging with the parties” and trying to coax them into a deal. Two Republican senators, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, have introduced legislation that would compel the adoption of the PEB-recommended terms.

In its September 11 statement, the holdout union duo discouraged federal intervention: “Congress should stay out of the rail dispute and tell the railroads to do what other business leaders do—sit down and bargain a contract that your employees will accept,” it said.

Latest from Transportation & Distribution

176927300 © Welcomia | Dreamstime.com
96378710 © Nattapong Boonchuenchom | Dreamstime.com