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Divided U.S. Rail Unions Raise Specter of Strike

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Divided U.S. Rail Unions Raise Specter of Strike

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November 21, 2022

By David Shepardson and Lisa Baertlein

WASHINGTON/LOS ANGELES, Nov 21 (Reuters) – The two largest U.S. rail unions representing conductors and engineers split in ratification votes on a tentative contract deal reached in September raising the possibility of a strike or lockout that could cause significant damage to the U.S. economy. 

Members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) voted to ratify the agreement while train and engine service members the transportation division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) voted to reject the deal. SMART-TD yardmasters voted to ratify their national agreement, the unions said Monday.

The vote could put pressure on Congress to intervene to prevent a strike or lockout ahead of the holiday season.

“The ball is now in the railroads’ court. Let’s see what they do. They can settle this at the bargaining table,” said SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said in a statement. “This can all be settled through negotiations and without a strike.”

If there is a strike by any of the unions that voted against the deal, BLET and other rail unions that have ratified agreements have pledged to lawfully honor the picket lines.

Business groups warn strand vital shipments of food and fuel. Seven of the 12 unions involved in the talks previously approved the deal, while three previously have voted against it but agreed to extend a strike deadline until early December.

Beginning on Dec. 9, SMART-TD would be allowed to go on strike or the rail carriers would be permitted to lock out workers — unless Congress intervenes.

The White House did not immediately comment.

The standoff between U.S. railroad operators and their union workers disrupted flows of hazardous materials such as chemicals used in fertilizer and disrupted U.S. passengerrailroad Amtrak service in September as railroads prepared for a possible work stoppage. 

The Biden administration helped avert a service cutoff by hosting last-minute contract talks in September at the Labor Department that led to a tentative contract deal.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said last month “any shutdown would be completely unacceptable. It is the responsibility of the parties involved to resolve this issue.”

Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said Congress should step in to prevent a potential rail disruption, warning it would be catastrophic for the economy. Automaker General Motors has said a halt would force it to stop production of some trucks within about a day.

A rail shutdown could freeze almost 30% of U.S. cargo shipments by weight, stoke inflation, cost the American economy as much as $2 billion per day and unleash a cascade of transport woes affecting U.S. energy, agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare and retail sectors.

The deal included a 24% compounded wage increase over a five-year period from 2020 through 2024 and five annual $1,000 lump sum payments.

The unions represent 115,000 workers at railroads, including Union Pacific, Berkshire Hathaway Inc’s BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Kansas City Southern. 

Labor unions have criticized the railroads’ sick leave and attendance policies and the lack of paid sick days for short-term illness.

The National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC), which represents the nation’s freightrailroads in talks, says the deal has the most “generous wage package in almost 50 years of national rail negotiations.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington and Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Nick Zieminski)

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2022.

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