The White House-brokered agreement to avert a railroad strike has the potential to fall apart, threatening widespread economic disruption right before the midterm elections.
Rail workers are set to vote on the tentative deal reached between unions and railroads Thursday morning. If any of the 12 rail unions fail to ratify a new contract, nearly 125,000 rail workers could be headed for a strike.
The agreement would mandate two-person crews, cap health care costs and allow workers to take time off for medical appointments or other scheduled events without being penalized, all key concessions won by unions.
The deal also provides 24 percent raises over five years, back pay and cash bonuses, similar terms to those offered by the White House-appointed presidential emergency board (PEB) last month.
But nearly 36 hours after the agreement was announced, rail workers said they still didn’t have concrete details on sick leave and voluntarily assigned days off. That’s raised some doubts about just how strong the new contract language is.
Ron Kaminkow, an organizer at Railroad Workers United, which represents rank-and-file railroaders, said that there’s “a lot of anger, confusion and hostility” toward the new agreement, which many workers feel is intentionally vague.
“Workers are pissed off and this time we actually have a lot of leverage,” said a locomotive engineer at Norfolk Southern who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “I know I’m not going to accept anything less than what we deserve.”
The two largest rail unions warned during negotiations that their members wouldn’t approve a contract that doesn’t quell outrage over unpredictable scheduling, unsafe working conditions and a lack of sick leave.
For the strike threat to end, workers would need to feel that the proposed contract is far stronger than the deal offered by the PEB. A survey of rail workers at the SMART Transportation Division found that nearly 8 in 10 would have voted to reject that contract.
Another dilemma is that the tentative agreement reached Thursday only applies to SMART and the Brotherhood Of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the two largest rail unions, but not the other unions that agreed to contracts based on the less worker-friendly PEB guidance.
Those include nearly 5,000 rail workers at the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers who voted to reject the PEB contract and authorize a strike last week. The union said it would resume negotiations this week and hold off on a strike until at least Sept. 29.
Vote counting is certain to drag into October, potentially setting up a key deadline at the height of election season.
Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois, predicted that the deal will ultimately pass but with a “sizeable number of ‘no’ votes.”
“I would be surprised if the bargaining committee misread what the rank and file would support. That doesn’t mean that it will pass with supermajorities,” Bruno said. “That will signal a level of continuing grievance on the part of the membership. It wouldn’t surprise me if a fairly substantial number of members voted ‘no’ in part because of how genuinely abused they feel.”
Bruno also said that the fact that sick leave and voluntarily assigned days off are the sticking points and not wages may inspire more “no” votes from workers.
“Usually, there’s a way to kind of figure out money,” he said. “It’s very often issues that go to respect and go to treatment, working autonomy, worker ability to have some control over their life. … I think it reflects just how much power employers can have, even under a collective bargaining agreement.”
A strike would shut down the U.S. railroad system, which carries nearly one-third of the nation’s freight, shutting down large portions of the economy. Enormous amounts of food, fuel and other key commodities would have no way to reach their destination.
The potential of further disruption to the nation’s fragile supply chain came at a terrible time for Democrats looking to hold onto their majority in Congress in the upcoming midterms.
There’s a sense of dread among some rail workers that Congress, not workers, will ultimately decide on the next rail contract if they vote down the newest agreement.
Senate Democrats on Wednesday blocked a GOP resolution that would have forced unions to accept the PEB terms, arguing that negotiators should be given more time.
But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday that Democrats were ready with a resolution to block a railroad shutdown if negotiations collapsed. She didn’t indicate whether the bill would impose a new contract, appoint arbitrators or simply prevent a walkout.
“Thankfully this action may not be necessary,” Pelosi said in a statement.
If the negotiations collapse, it could bode poorly for Biden, who often touts that he is the most pro-union president in U.S. history. Biden’s call into negotiations at 9 p.m. on Thursday to say a shutdown of railways was unacceptable came just hours before the tentative deal was struck. He’s received credit from both sides of the talks.
“This is an important test for the Biden administration’s commitments—not just to labor unions but to protecting middle-class jobs and workers,” said Gordon Lafer, co-director of the Labor Education & Research Center at the University of Oregon.
“If the company’s position is essentially that it wants to keep workers on impossible schedules that take a toll on their health, family life and emotional well-being, just in order to not lessen what are already healthy profits, I think that’s exactly the kind of problem that Biden has promised to solve,” he added.