The deal to prevent a train strike, mediated by the White House, has the potential to fail, posing the possibility of significant economic disruption just before the midterm elections. The tentative agreement agreed between unions and railways is up for a vote among train workers on Thursday morning. Nearly 125,000 train employees may go on strike if any of the 12 rail unions fail to endorse a new deal.
The deal would require two-person crews, set a limit on health care expenditures, and permit employees to take time off without being punished for going to appointments or other scheduled activities. These were all significant concessions secured by unions. The agreement also includes back pay, cash incentives, and rises of 24 percent spread over five years, which are comparable to the parameters presented last month by the presidential emergency board (PEB), which was formed by the White House.
Rail workers, however, claimed they still lacked specific information on sick leave and voluntarily designated days off over 36 hours after the deal was made public. This has caused some people to question how solid the new contract wording really is.
The new deal, which many employees believe is purposefully ambiguous, has sparked “a lot of resentment, misunderstanding, and hatred,” according to Ron Kaminkow, an organizer with Railroad Workers United, which represents rank-and-file railroaders.
For fear of reprisals, a locomotive engineer at Norfolk Southern who wished to remain nameless said, “Workers are angry and this time we truly have a lot of leverage.” “I am aware that I won’t settle for anything less than what we merit.”
During discussions, the two major train unions issued a warning that their members wouldn’t ratify a deal if it didn’t allay concerns about erratic schedules, hazardous working conditions, and a lack of sick leave.
Workers would need to believe that the proposed contract is much stronger than the arrangement provided by the PEB for the strike threat to stop. Nearly 8 out of 10 train workers at the SMART Transportation Division said they would have voted to reject that contract, according to a study.
Another issue is that the provisional deal struck on Thursday only covers the two major rail unions, SMART and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and not the smaller unions that signed contracts based on the less pro-worker PEB recommendations.
Among them are the almost 5,000 train workers who voted last week to reject the PEB contract and authorize a strike under the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The union said that it will pick up the talks this week and postpone a strike at least until September 29.
Vote tallying will undoubtedly go beyond October, perhaps creating a crucial deadline during election season.
A “considerable percentage of ‘no’ votes,” according to Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois, will ultimately cause the agreement to pass.
If the bargaining committee miscalculated what the rank and file would endorse, I would be shocked. That doesn’t necessarily imply that it will pass with a supermajority, according to Bruno. “That will indicate the membership’s level of ongoing resentment. I wouldn’t be surprised if a sizable portion of the members abstained in part due to their true feelings of mistreatment.
Bruno said that the fact that voluntary days off and sick leave are the sticking points rather than salaries may encourage more workers to vote “no.”
Usually, he added, “there’s a method to sort of figure out money.” The capacity of workers to have some control over their lives, workplace autonomy, and respect are frequently difficulties. I believe it illustrates the enormous influence that employers may still use even in the presence of a CBA.
Since the United States’ train system transports close to one-third of the country’s freight, a strike would cause significant economic disruptions. Huge quantities of food, gasoline, and other essential goods couldn’t get where they needed to go.
For Democrats hoping to maintain their majority in Congress during the impending midterm elections, the possibility of more disruption to the country’s frail supply system comes at the worst possible time.
Some train workers are afraid that if they reject the most recent agreement, Congress would ultimately decide the terms of the next rail contract, not the workers.
On Wednesday, Senate Democrats argued that negotiators should be given more time and defeated a GOP motion that would have compelled unions to accept the PEB provisions.
However, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stated on Thursday that if talks broke down, Democrats would be prepared with a resolution to stop a train shutdown. She made no mention of whether the legislation would need a new contract, name arbitrators, or simply end a strike.
Pelosi stated in a statement that “thankfully this measure may not be necessary.”
If the talks fail, it might not be good for Biden, who frequently boasts about being the most pro-union president in American history. Just hours before the preliminary agreement was reached, Biden called into the talks at 9 p.m. on Thursday to declare that a closure of the trains was unacceptable. He has been praised by both parties to the negotiations.
According to Gordon Lafer, co-director of the Labor Education & Research Center at the University of Oregon, “this is a crucial test for the Biden administration’s commitments—not just to labor unions but to defending middle-class jobs and workers.”
“I think that’s exactly the kind of problem that Biden has promised to solve,” he continued. “If the company’s position is basically that it wants to keep workers on impossible schedules that have a negative impact on their health, family life, and emotional well-being, just to not lessen what are already healthy profits.”
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