Rail union rejects Biden deal, sets stage for December strike

Members of a key rail union voted to reject a tentative contract agreement negotiated by the Biden administration, raising the risk of a strike that would shut down the nation’s railroads.

Train and engine workers at the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers’s transportation division (SMART-TD) narrowly voted down the deal, the union announced Monday. 

The vote sets the stage for a walkout in early December, in the middle of the holiday shopping season that demands increased shipping volume. Railroads transport around one-third of U.S. freight, including large amounts of food, packaged goods, fuel and car parts that can’t be shipped by other means. 

“This can all be settled through negotiations and without a strike,” SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said in a statement. “A settlement would be in the best interests of the workers, the railroads, shippers and the American people.”

Rail workers are pushing for better pay, more reliable schedules, stronger safety standards and the ability to take time off if they are sick or have a doctor’s appointment. 

Members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which together with SMART-TD represents more than half of the nation’s 115,000 railroad workers, voted to accept the tentative deal.  

The Biden administration helped the two unions come to a tentative agreement with railroads in September, narrowly averting a strike that was set to take place the next day. 

Eight of the 12 rail unions have now ratified agreements with the railroads. Three others saw their members vote down tentative deals. If just one union fails to ratify an agreement and chooses to strike, all rail workers would be set to walk out.  

Labor leaders expect that Congress would vote to block a strike and force through the deal bartered by Biden. After that agreement was reached, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that the House had prepared legislation to prevent a walkout. 

Still, in the week leading up to the strike deadline, railroads would close off large portions of their infrastructure, shutting down key transport channels and most commuter rail lines. The Association of American Railroads estimates that a nationwide shutdown would cost the U.S. economy $2 billion per day. 

“Let’s be clear, if the remaining unions do not accept an agreement, Congress should be prepared to act and avoid a disastrous $2 billion a day hit to our economy,” AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies said in a statement.

Unions have long complained that railroads are refusing to seriously negotiate because they know Congress would intervene to prevent an economic catastrophe.

“The ball is now in the railroads’ court. Let’s see what they do. They can settle this at the bargaining table,” Ferguson said. “But, the railroad executives who constantly complain about government interference and regularly bad-mouth regulators and Congress now want Congress to do the bargaining for them.”

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