A clash between railroad freight carriers and their labor unions could shut down the U.S. rail system if the two sides fail to reach an agreement by Friday, creating a disruption with huge economic and political ramifications.
A dozen unions representing more than 100,000 workers are trying to negotiate new contracts with major rail carriers, including Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific and CSX. While most have reached a tentative deal with the industry, two major unions have yet to reach an agreement, and another union said Wednesday that its members had voted to reject theirs.
The deadline to reach an agreement is midnight Friday morning. Otherwise, there are several possible exits.
Workers could strike, stopping the freight rail system; railroad companies could throw workers out of their jobs, achieving the same practical effect; Congress can impose treaty terms on both parties, whether they like it or not; or the term may be extended.
The impact of a shutdown could be so severe that President Joe Biden is calling on carriers and unions to reach a compromise as soon as possible, and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh met with both sides Wednesday morning in hopes of averting a work stoppage.
“The shutdown of our freight rail system is an unacceptable outcome for our economy and the American people, and all countries must work to avoid exactly that,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.
What is the argument about?
A collective bargaining agreement has many moving parts during negotiations: wages, health coverage, retirement benefits, paid time off, work rules, and more. All of those parts can change with each other until a deal is reached, but unions say the disagreement at this point is mostly over leave and scheduling policies.
Unions say workers can be on call for up to 14 days at a time and face draconian attendance requirements – including losing their jobs because they go to the doctor or care for sick children.
“Our members are terminated because they get sick or attend routine medical appointments.”
– The unions SMART and BLET
In a joint statement, two of the unions at the center of the battle, the Sheet Metal, Aerospace, Rail and Transport Workers International (SMART) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive and Train Engineers (BLET), said the rail carriers’ policies amounted to “harassment”.
“Penalizing engineers and conductors for calling in sick or going to a doctor’s appointment with termination must be stopped as part of this contract settlement,” they said. “Let’s say this again: Our members are being terminated for illness or for attending routine medical appointments as we crawl our way out of a global pandemic.”
Unions insist workers have been pushed to the brink and will reject any deal that doesn’t deliver improvements on that front. They point to industry downsizing as evidence that employers are squeezing too much out of the workforce.
According to the Federal Surface Transportation Board, major carriers have cut staff by 29% for six years, prompting the board’s director to say that in many cases “the railways simply don’t have enough staff”.
How did we get so close to stopping rail transport?
Because of the impact a work stoppage would have on transport and commerce, rail workers are covered by different labor laws than most other private sector workers. Both countries must go through several steps before workers can legally strike or be locked out of their jobs. This is probably a testament to workers’ frustration that the dispute has come to this.
After failing to reach an agreement, the union coalitions and the railroad industry group, the National Railroad Labor Conference, went through months of mediation with federal officials. That didn’t end in a deal either, and both sides began a legally required one-month “cooling off” period. Biden then called an emergency council to try to end the dispute.
The board held hearings and in August made its recommendations, including a pay rise of 24 per cent over five years, which the rail group said would be “the most significant pay rise in decades”. But the unions that held out said the board got it wrong on the leave and attendance issue, leaving unions reluctant to accept the package.
After another legally required reflection period ends on Friday morning, there will be a work stoppage. Members of the BLET union told Labor Notes they plan to start column at 12:01 a.m. Friday morning if they don’t have a contract. But it’s also possible that the railroads themselves will initiate the work stoppage, locking workers out of their jobs to gain leverage in negotiations.
What would be the effects of suspension?
We are already seeing some of the effects. Amtrak announced Wednesday it was canceling long-distance passenger trains starting Thursday, mostly outside the busy Northeast Corridor. Passenger trains would be affected because often use songs operated by freight companies. Other transit agencies have warned that they, too, could be hurt by the shutdown.
Several of the shipping companies began curtailing the service earlier this week, embargoing certain types of shipments a few days before the deadline. The companies said the idea was to ensure hazardous materials were not left behind in the event of a work stoppage, but unions criticized the move as a ploy to put political pressure on workers.
“Railroads are using our nation’s shippers, consumers and supply chain as pawns in an attempt to get our [unions] to submit to their contractual demands, knowing that our members will never accept them,” SMART and BLET said in a statement.
“It is possible that the railroads themselves initiated the work stoppage by locking workers out of their jobs to gain leverage.”
The White House is drawing up plans to keep critical goods moving in case the two sides can’t reach a deal. The opposition has put the Biden administration in a difficult political situation: The administration doesn’t want a shutdown that could hurt the economy and spur more inflation, but union allies would be furious if Biden, the self-proclaimed “most pro-union president” ever, helped push them toward an unsatisfactory deal.
Both sides may agree to extend the deadline beyond Friday morning to buy more time for negotiations. It is also theoretically possible that Congress could step in and force carriers and unions to accept the president’s council’s contract recommendations, an outcome that carriers like BNSF will seem pleased with.
Senate Republicans maneuvered Wednesday to get it through a resolution, but were blocked by the chamber’s most prominent union supporter, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Speaking on the Senate floor, Sanders criticized the railroads for pursuing what he called a “reactionary policy” of “denying workers sick leave.”
“That means if you as a worker get sick, if your child gets sick, if your spouse gets sick and you have to take time off work, not only will you not be paid, but you could actually be fired,” Sanders said. “How crazy is that?”