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The Settled Rail Strike is Not Settled – A Fourth Union Votes “No”

Adding to last week’s “No” vote by the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers (IBB), the largest rail union in the US became the fourth organization to give September’s negotiated agreement a “thumbs down”. The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers Transportation Division (SMART-TD) voted down the agreement on Monday.

September Negotiated Agreement

On September 16th a rail strke was averted when a tentative agreement was forged with just hours to spare. It appeared that all had been resolved, with union ratification anticipated. However, in October, The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS) and The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWED), rejected the agreement.

All 12 unions have now voted. With the recent SMART-TD rejection, eight unions have voted “yes” and four have voted “no”.

To date, this is what we know:

  • The current union contracts covering the five class one railroads representing 115,000 freight rail workers, expired in 2019. Since June of 2020, the unions and railroads have been in mediation.
  • The BRS, affiliated with the AFL-CIO, is currently in a cooling off period that will end on December 4th.
  • The BMWED of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which maintains the tracks and is the third largest union, was poised for a November 20th strike. They have extended the cooling off period to December 4th, to match that of the BRS.
  • The IBB, affiliated with both the AFL-CIO and CLC, becomes the third union to vote down the agreement put before their membership for ratification.
  • SMART-TD voted down the agreement on Monday.
  • The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) the second largest union, ratified it’s contract on Monday. Along with SMART-TD, they represent approximately half of the union workers impacted.
  • In order to avert a rail strike, all 12 unions must accept the agreement. It is unlikely that any union will cross picket lines.
  • If a strike occurs, the impact will go beyond freight—it will also halt Amtrak and commuter trains.
  • While some workers argue that the pay increases barely keep up with inflation, the real sticking point for unions voting down the agreement seems to be the issue of time off and unpaid sick days.
  • The earliest that a strike could occur is December 9th, just weeks before the Holiday rush.

Congressional intervention may be needed.

Approximately 30% of freight in the US is touched in some way by rail and over 60% of containers at ports are destined for rails which could cause freight backlogs. According to Union Pacific, nearly 75% of new cars and light trucks purchased in the US are moved by rail at some point. A rail strike could fall into the area of being a national emergency, as we reported in both August and September.

We are Watching this Closely

Wheels Donlen will be in continual communication with the major automotive manufacturers who in turn will be in constant contact with the railroads and the White House. Both the manufacturers and the railroads have prepared operational contingencies, and we will keep you posted with any changes as the time draws closer.