Shipping containers sit at a railway facility waiting to be transferred.
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One of the largest rail labor unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), will honor the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS) strike date of December 5, the first date upon which a rail union to reject the proposed labor deal with freight railroad companies can strike.
“Our members will certainly honor the picket line of BRS,” BLET president Dennis Pierce told CNBC. “I think every union will.”
The BRS has not announced if it would extend a cooling-off period to match a later potential strike date of Dec. 9. On Monday, SMART-TD, one of the largest rail unions, voted down the labor deal, but its first strike date is December 9. The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWED), which was originally on the same cooling-off period and strike schedule as BRS, previously announced it would extend the schedule to align with SMART-TD if that union rejected the deal.
Pierce told CNBC a record number of BLET members participated in the ratification vote — which has been the case at other rail unions — with 53.5% voting in favor and 46.5% voting against.
“Even though they did vote for it, we still got a lot of no votes,” Pierce said. “There’s still a lot of acrimony out there. And I think you can see the evidence of that in the turnout of the SMART-TD vote. So we still have a lot of work to do. There’s a whole lot of anger. Folks are still not pleased,” he said.
BLET and SMART-TD represent roughly half of all freight rail workers.
The anger, Pierce said, centers around quality of life issues which have been a sticking point throughout negotiations with rail management, which have offered significant pay raises and one-time lump sum distributions to workers. Access to time off is one of the components of the BLET agreement, and rail unions have been pushing to make federal contractor sick pay policies a permanent benefit for union members. BMWED and BRS had another round of talks scheduled with railroad carriers Monday afternoon on federal sick pay.
“We need to get moving on that right away, to get access to that predictable time off,” Pierce said. “But even with that, there’s still attendance-related issues where people are being forced to go to work when they’re sick, forced to go to work when they’re tired. And it’s really why the railroads have had so much trouble hiring as of late because the word is out that the jobs aren’t attractive because of the way folks get treated. Our goal is to improve those jobs with these predictable days off, but we’ve got to get busy and try to get that accomplished.”
A spokesperson for the Association of American Railroads recently told CNBC that train and engine service headcount was up 7.4% in September compared with January, though government data shows rail staffing has declined in recent years and cited “precision scheduled railroading” as one factor.
Pierce pointed to when Union Pacific CEO laughed while answering a CNBC on-air question about the possibility of a strike as evidence of the railroad carrier’s lack of respect for the railroad worker.
“The laughing in public like that over something that’s serious is really why a lot of those no votes exist,” said Pierce. “This level of arrogance and disrespect for the working class that really makes the profits for railroads like Union Pacific and all of them is why these folks are so angry. They went to the Presidential Emergency Board and suggested that we don’t contribute to the profits. They were essential during the pandemic.”
On Monday, Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ian Jefferies said, “Today, the BLET joined the majority of our unions in approving the largest wage increases in nearly five decades and also paved a path toward greater scheduling predictability for its members.”
He added, “Railroads stand ready to reach new deals based upon the PEB [Presidential Emergency Board] framework with our remaining unions, but the window continues to narrow as deadlines rapidly approach.”
The differing timelines for unions to strike including the BRS, BMWED, and SMART-TD is based on the negotiated extensions of the cooling-off periods that the railroads signed off on.
“Those dates were agreed to by the railroads so we’ll have to wait and see and see if they work things out or if this does come down to the wire again,” Pierce said.
Based on the September strike preparation guidelines, if the BRS sticks with their strike date of Dec. 5, strike prep is expected to begin Nov. 28, the day the Senate arrives back from Thanksgiving break. The House is back on the Hill on Nov. 29.
Congress has the authority to avert a rail strike under the Railway Labor Act. Congress can impose the resolution from Biden’s Presidential Emergency Board, or order the trains to operate as usual with an extension of negotiations.