Shipping containers sit at a rail yard waiting to be transferred.
Scott Olson | Getty Images
One of the largest railroad unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), will honor the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen’s (BRS) strike date of Dec. 5, the first date a railroad union rejecting the proposed labor agreement with freight railroad companies can strike.
“Our members will certainly honor the strike at BRS,” BLET President Dennis Pierce told CNBC. “I think every union will.”
BRS has not announced whether it will extend a cooling-off period to match a later potential strike date of December 9. On Monday, SMART-TD, one of the largest railway unions, voted down the labor agreement, but its first strike date is December 9. The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWED), which was initially on the same cooling-off period and strike schedule as BRS, previously announced it would extend the schedule to accommodate SMART-TD if that union rejected part.
Pierce told CNBC that a record number of BLET members participated in the ratification vote — which has been the case for other railroad unions — with 53.5% voting in favor and 46.5% voting against.
“Even though they voted for it, we still got a lot of no votes,” Pierce said. “There’s still a lot of bitterness out there. And I think you can see the evidence of that in the turnout of the SMART-TD vote. So we still have a lot of work to do. There’s a whole lot of anger. People are still not satisfied,” he said.
BLET and SMART-TD represent about half of all freight train workers.
The anger, Pierce said, centers on quality-of-life issues that have been a sticking point throughout negotiations with railroad management, which has offered significant wage increases and one-time handouts to workers. Access to time off is one of the components of the BLET agreement, and railroad unions have pushed to make federal contractors’ sick pay policies a permanent benefit to union members. BMWED and BRS had a second round of talks scheduled with railroad companies Monday afternoon about federal sick pay.
“We need to get on that right away to access the predictable time off,” Pierce said. “But even with that, there are still attendance issues where people are forced to go to work when they’re sick, forced to go to work when they’re tired. And that’s really why the railroads have had so a lot of problems hiring late because the word is out that the jobs are not attractive because of the way people are treated our goal is to improve these jobs with these predictable days off but we have to get busy and try to have it achieved.”
A spokesman for the Association of American Railroads recently told CNBC that the number of train and engine services increased 7.4% in September compared to January, even though government data shows rail staffing has declined in recent years, citing “precision-scheduled railroads ” as a factor.
Pierce pointed to when Union Pacific The CEO laughed while answering a CNBC on-air question about the possibility of a strike as evidence of the railroad’s lack of respect for the railroad worker.
“To laugh in public like that about something that’s serious is really why a lot of these no votes exist,” Pierce said. “This level of arrogance and disrespect for the working class that really makes a profit for railroads like the Union Pacific and all of them is why these people are so angry. They went to the President’s Relief Council and suggested that we not contribute to profits. They were essential during the pandemic.”
On Monday, Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ian Jefferies said, “Today, BLET joined the majority of our unions in approving the largest wage increases in nearly five decades and also paved a path toward greater scheduling predictability for its members.”
He added, “Railways are ready to reach new agreements based on PEB [Presidential Emergency Board] framework with our remaining unions, but the window continues to narrow as deadlines rapidly approach.”
The Class 1 freight rails affected by the strike include UP, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Berkshire Hathaway‘s BNSF.
The various deadlines for unions to strike, including BRS, BMWED and SMART-TD, are based on the negotiated extensions to the cooling-off periods signed by the railways.
“Those dates were agreed upon by the railroads, so we’ll have to wait and see if they work things out or if this comes down to the wire again,” Pierce said.
Based on the September strike preparation guidelines, if BRS sticks to their strike date of December 5th, strike preparation is expected to begin on November 28th, the day the Senate returns from the Thanksgiving recess. The house is back on Bakken on 29 November.
Congress has the authority to avert a railroad strike under the Railway Labor Act. Congress can impose the decision of Biden’s Presidential Emergency Board or order the trains to run as usual with an extension of the negotiations.