US rail strike threatens after latest union rejects compromise deal

The Washington cavalry will have to step in again. Three months after a presidential emergency council reached a compromise between US rail companies and unions that was on the brink of a strike, US rail customers are again facing the prospect of serious disruptions. A fourth union voted against the deal and a railway stoppage could take place as early as 4 December.

All eyes were on the two largest unions representing railway workers after eight other unions endorsed a compromise reached in August and two voted against it. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the transport division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) – cast their votes last weekend. BLET, the smaller one, agreed to the proposed deal by 54% to 46%. So did a small section of SMART-TD, the yard masters, with 62.48% support for the compromise agreement. However, the majority of more than 28,000 SMART-TD members rejected the agreement with 50.87% against. While eight unions ratified the agreement, four rejected it. „SMART-TD members have spoken, it is now back to the negotiating table for our operational members,“ said SMART-TD president Jeremy Ferguson. „This can all be resolved through negotiation and without a strike.“ The railways, however, seem unwilling to negotiate further. They have consistently brushed aside the issue of paid sick leave as it was not addressed by the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) and instead highlighted historically high wage increases of 24% over the 2020-2024 period, plus five annual lump sums of $1,000.

„Railroads stand ready to reach new agreements based on the PEB framework with our remaining unions, but the window continues to narrow as deadlines rapidly approach,“ said Ian Jefferies, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads. „Let us be clear: if the remaining unions do not accept an agreement, Congress must be prepared to act and prevent a catastrophic $2 billion-a-day blow to our economy.“ Railway companies have warned that they will reduce services before the official cooling-off period ends to prepare for a strike. In the summer, they used similar tactics, announcing embargoes on their networks in anticipation of a possible confrontation, before pressure from the White House led to the compromise agreement voted on by unions in recent weeks.

By denying the issue of paid sick leave, the railways are effectively closing the door to further negotiations. They hope a strike will lead to Congress intervention, as has happened before. This paves the way for the unions to put pressure on the railway companies, probably through a strike. SMART-TD members must observe a cooling-off period until 9 December before they can go on strike. The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, whose members have already rejected the contract offer, could strike as early as 4 December. If one of the unions calls a strike, all 128,000 railway union members are ready to support their colleagues and respect their strike lines.