Despite the fact that two other railroad unions rejected their agreements last month, another of the 12 railroad unions narrowly approved their deal with the major freight railroads on Saturday, providing some hope that the contract dispute could be resolved without a strike.
Seven railroad unions have ratified contracts that include 24% raises and $5,000 in bonuses now that 52% of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers members who voted approved their deal, but all 12 must approve contracts to avoid a strike.
Because the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division and Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen unions voted down their contracts, there is still concern about the possibility of an economically devastating strike, and many workers say these deals simply do not address their quality-of-life concerns. There will be no strike because the unions agreed to return to the bargaining table to try to reach a new agreement, but those talks have stalled over the unions’ demands for paid sick time, and there is a Nov. 19 deadline.
The railroads have rejected union demands for paid sick time, claiming that the deals they’ve been offering include higher wages to compensate workers for the lack of sick time and other quality of life concerns. The railroads want any agreement to closely adhere to the recommendations made this summer by a special panel of arbitrators appointed by President Joe Biden.
The railroads have also maintained that the unions have agreed over the years to forego paid sick leave in favor of better wages and strong short-term disability benefits.
The group that negotiates on behalf of Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, BNSF, Kansas City Southern, CSX, and other railroads said the agreement approved by the Machinists includes “the largest wage package in nearly five decades” and implements the Presidential Emergency Board’s recommendations.
The agreement approved by the Machinists this weekend was the second one they voted on after rejecting their first. This one includes all of the raises and an extra paid leave day that were included in the original agreement, but it also includes several additional benefits such as a cap on health insurance expenses, an agreement that the railroads will study how much overtime employees are forced to work, and a promise that each railroad will negotiate separately over expense reimbursement.
The railroads also promised the Machinists that they would not force employees to share hotel rooms while traveling for work.
“Our union recognizes that the agreement was not unanimously accepted, so our team will continue to converse with our members at our rail yards across the country,” said the Machinists union’s District 19 unit in a statement. “This agreement is the first step in addressing some of our industry’s issues.” Our fight brought to light the issues of work-life balance and the lack of proper paid sick leave.”
Three other unions, including the largest ones representing engineers and conductors, are scheduled to vote later this month.
The Machinists union represents workers who have more regular schedules than the engineers and conductors who say the railroads’ strict attendance policies keep them on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers unions will not even release the results of their votes until after the current November 19 deadline in the BMWED talks.
Because of the possibility of a strike, business groups have urged Biden and Congress to be prepared to intervene if both sides are unable to reach an agreement. Biden was instrumental in securing these initial agreements in September, and Congress has the authority to prevent a strike and impose terms on workers if there is a walkout.