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Large rail union rejects deal, renewing strike possibility

A freight train passes by trees to its right and a cluster of buildings.
The third-largest railroad union rejected its deal with freight railroads Monday, renewing the possibility of a strike that could cripple the economy. Shown here is a CSX freight train traveling through Alexandria, Va., on Sept. 15.
(Kevin Wolf / Associated Press)
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The third-largest railroad union rejected its deal with freight railroads Monday — renewing the possibility of a strike that could cripple the economy — but before that could happen both sides will return to the bargaining table.

About 56% of the track maintenance workers represented by the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division union who voted opposed the five-year contract, which included 24% raises and $5,000 in bonuses. Union President Tony Cardwell said the railroads didn’t do enough to address worker concerns about the lack of paid time off — particularly sick time — and the demanding working conditions after the major railroads eliminated nearly one-third of their jobs over the last six years.

“Railroaders are discouraged and upset with working conditions and compensation and hold their employer in low regard. Railroaders do not feel valued,” Cardwell said in a statement. “They resent the fact that management holds no regard for their quality of life, illustrated by their stubborn reluctance to provide a higher quantity of paid time off, especially for sickness.”

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The railroads didn’t immediately comment on the rejected contract.

Four other railroad unions have approved their agreements with the freight railroads that include BNSF, Union Pacific, Kansas City Southern, CSX and Norfolk Southern, but all 12 unions that represent a total of 115,000 workers must ratify their contracts to prevent a strike. One other union, the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, initially rejected its deal but has since renegotiated a new contract. The voting won’t be completed until mid-November.

President Biden put pressure on the railroads and unions to reach a deal last month ahead of a mid-September deadline to allow a strike or walkout. Many businesses also urged Congress to be ready to intervene in the dispute and block a strike if an agreement wasn’t reached because so many companies rely on railroads to deliver their raw materials and finished products.

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In general, the deals the unions agreed to closely follow the recommendations made this summer by a special panel of arbitrators that Biden appointed. That Presidential Emergency Board recommended what would be the biggest raises rail workers have seen in more than four decades, but it didn’t resolve the unions’ concerns about working conditions. Instead, it said the unions should pursue additional negotiations or arbitration that can take years with each railroad individually.

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way union said it agreed to delay any strike until five days after Congress reconvenes in mid-November to allow time for additional negotiations.

Quality-of-life issues took center stage at the end of these negotiations, with the unions that represent conductors and engineers holding out until the end to get three unpaid leave days a year to tend to medical appointments and a promise that railroads will negotiate further about giving those employees regularly scheduled days off where they aren’t on call. The engineers and conductors have complained that strict railroad attendance policies make it hard to take any time off.

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The track maintenance workers in the BMWED generally have more regular schedules than engineers and conductors, but all the rail unions have objected to the lack of paid sick time in the industry — particularly after working to keep trains moving throughout the pandemic.

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