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Results Mixed as Unions Seek Deals With US Railroads

A CSX freight train runs through a crossing in Homestead, Pa., Sept. 14, 2022.
A CSX freight train runs through a crossing in Homestead, Pa., Sept. 14, 2022.

Members of one union rejected a tentative deal with the largest U.S. freight railroads Wednesday, while two ratified agreements and three others remained at the bargaining table just days ahead of a strike deadline, threatening to intensify snarls in the nation's supply chain that have contributed to rising prices.

About 4,900 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 19 voted to reject the tentative agreement negotiated by IAM leadership with the railroads, the union said Wednesday. But the IAM agreed to delay any strike by its members until September 29 to allow more time for negotiations and to allow other unions to vote.

Railroads are trying to reach an agreement with all their unions to avert a strike before Friday's deadline. The unions aren't allowed to strike before Friday under the federal law that governs railroad contract talks.

The possibility of a freight rail strike is already disrupting passenger traffic because Amtrak and many commuter railroads operate on tracks owned by the freight railroads. Amtrak has canceled a number of its long-distance trains this week, and it said the rest of its long-distance trains would stop Thursday ahead of the strike deadline.

Government officials and a variety of businesses are bracing for the possibility of a nationwide rail strike that would paralyze shipments of everything from crude oil and clothing to cars, a potential calamity for businesses that have struggled for more than two years because of COVID-19-related supply chain breakdowns.

There are 12 unions — one with two separate divisions — representing 115,000 workers that must agree to the tentative deals and then have members vote on whether to approve them. So far, nine have agreed to tentative deals and three others are still at the bargaining table.

Of the nine that agreed to the deals, two — the Transportation Communications Union and the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen — voted to ratify their contracts Wednesday. IAM members voted to reject their deal. And votes by the other six unions that approved tentative deals are pending.

Presidential board

All the tentative deals are based closely on the recommendations of a Presidential Emergency Board that Joe Biden appointed this summer that called for 24% raises and $5,000 in bonuses in a five-year deal that's retroactive to 2020. Those recommendations also include one additional paid leave day a year and higher health insurance costs.

The key unions that represent the conductors and engineers who drive trains are holding out in the hope that railroads will agree to go beyond those recommendations and address some of their concerns about unpredictable schedules and strict attendance policies that they say make it difficult to take any time off.

They say the job cuts major railroads have made over the past six years — eliminating nearly one-third of their workers — have made a difficult job even harder, although the railroads maintain their operations have just become more efficient as they rely on fewer, longer trains.

Contract talks continued Wednesday with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh participating to put pressure on both sides to reach a deal before Friday's deadline.

"All parties need to stay at the table, bargain in good faith to resolve outstanding issues, and come to an agreement," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. "A shutdown of our freight system is an unacceptable outcome for our economy and the American people, and all parties must work to avoid just that."

If the two sides can't agree, Congress could step in to block a strike and impose terms on the railroads and unions, but it wasn't clear Wednesday how quickly they could or would act because Democrats and Republicans can't readily agree on a solution. A number of business groups have written letters to lawmakers over the past week urging them to be prepared to step in because of their concerns that a rail strike would be what the Business Roundtable called an "economic catastrophe."

With the midterm elections just weeks away, politics will play a role if Congress has to settle this dispute. Democrats are wary of alienating their allies in organized labor, as unions tend to be strong supporters in elections. At the same time, Republicans see an opportunity to put pressure on Biden and his party if the railroads teeter toward a strike. But it's entirely possible that all sides would be blamed for a rail shutdown.

The many businesses that rely on railroads to deliver their raw materials and finished products say a rail strike would cause significant problems particularly for oil refineries, chemical businesses, automakers, retailers and agricultural groups. The Association of American Railroads trade group estimated that a strike would cost the economy more than $2 billion a day.

Businesses would likely try to turn to trucks and other modes of shipping if the railroads do shut down, but there isn't enough trucking capacity to take up all the slack. The railroad trade group estimated that 467,000 additional trucks a day would be required to deliver everything railroads handle now.