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Key Freight Rail Union Rejects Deal, Increasing Strike Risk

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Members of a union that primarily represents freight rail conductors have narrowly voted down a tentative labor contract, their union said Monday.

If the 2 sides cannot reach one other tentative agreement by early December, the rail staff could strike — an final result that industry officials have estimated could cost the economy greater than $2 billion per day.

Roughly 51 percent of the voting members of the union, SMART Transportation Division, rejected the agreement. Members of a second large union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which primarily represents engineers, voted to approve the agreement, with 53.5 percent in favor.

“SMART-TD members with their votes have spoken, it’s now back to the bargaining table for our operating craft members,” the SMART-TD president, Jeremy Ferguson, said in a press release. “This could all be settled through negotiations and and not using a strike. A settlement could be in the very best interests of the employees, the railroads, shippers and the American people.”

Ian Jefferies, chief executive of the Association of American Railroads, which represents major carriers, said in a press release that “railroads stand ready to succeed in latest deals” but that “the window continues to narrow as deadlines rapidly approach.”

A strike may lead to significant economic disruptions. Federal data shows that railways transported about 28 percent of U.S. freight before the pandemic, including key industrial commodities like coal, lumber, ore and chemicals, making them the second-largest mode of freight transport, behind trucking, which is about 40 percent. Freight rail carriers are also vital in moving automobiles and their components.

The American Trucking Associations, an industry group, wrote in September that the country would want greater than 460,000 additional long-haul trucks every day if the nation’s freight rails shut down. The group said such a big shift toward trucking could be unimaginable since the industry lacked sufficient equipment and faced a shortage of tens of 1000’s of drivers.

“As such, any rail service disruption will create havoc in the availability chain and fuel inflationary pressures across the board,” the group wrote.

The proposal that union members rejected, reached in September with help from the Biden administration, covered greater than 100,000 members of a dozen rail industry unions and would have raised wages nearly 25 percent over the five years that began in 2020, when the last contract expired.

But rail staff have said their top concerns are the grueling, unpredictable schedules that take a toll on their personal lives and their health. Many have complained that prolonged time on the road and long stretches of on-call work make it difficult to see a health care provider for an illness or injury, or to be present at family milestones like a toddler’s birthday.

Rail carriers say employees can generally attend to those needs by taking paid vacation. The employees say their employers limit their options for taking paid break day in practice — for instance, by narrowing the windows wherein they will take vacation or rejecting a requested personal day.

The tentative agreement would have allowed staff to take off as much as thrice every year for a routine medical appointment without risking disciplinary motion, but many staff said that the concession was insufficient and that it didn’t address the deeper issue underlying their concerns: a business model that seeks to attenuate labor costs and ends in chronic understaffing.

The Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that regulates freight rail, has estimated that enormous freight carriers employed 30 percent fewer staff this yr than they did six years ago.

Before the conductors union voted down the agreement, three smaller unions that the agreement would cover voted against it. That in itself could have led to an industrywide strike because rail staff are unlikely to cross the picket lines of other unions.

Skeptical conductors and engineers have identified that the tentative agreement could have worsened staffing problems and made their schedules even less predictable by allowing the carriers to use a staffing change they’ve long sought.

Under the present system, conductors and engineers fall to the underside of an inventory of accessible crews after they complete a visit, then regularly work their way as much as the highest, at which point they’re sent out again.

If a co-worker calls in sick, a employee from a bunch generally known as an additional board will be substituted in order that the opposite conductors and engineers don’t move up the list more quickly and may maintain some predictability of their schedule.

Employees say cuts to the additional board lately have eroded this predictability. The tentative agreement made it possible for the carriers to ascertain so-called self-supporting pools that eliminate using substitute staff, though it appeared to present the unions some formal say over whether to achieve this.

“The self-protecting pools is a extremely, really big one,” said Michael Paul Lindsey, an Idaho-based member of the engineers union, alluding to the explanations that many staff opposed the deal.

Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh, who in September helped broker the agreement that the unions voted down, said in an interview with CNN this month that Congress would need to intervene to avert a strike if the 2 sides couldn’t resolve their differences. It was unclear from the interview if he was urging intervention or just intended to put out possible options under the law.

Congressional involvement could take a number of forms. Congress could extend the so-called cooling-off period wherein the 2 sides negotiate and not using a strike, or require the 2 sides to enter arbitration.

It could also pass laws enacting a proposal issued over the summer by a presidential emergency board, whose time-off provisions were less generous than the agreement just voted down, or mandate the newer agreement itself.

Mr. Lindsey said Mr. Walsh’s pronouncement had angered his co-workers, who believed they needs to be allowed to strike if the industry didn’t make sufficient concessions. He said many staff suspected that the administration had been primarily concerned with stopping the labor dispute from boiling over before this month’s midterm elections relatively than addressing their concerns.

“People feel completely sold out,” Mr. Lindsey said, adding, “Now that it’s after the election, there’s going to be no accountability.”

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