Biggest U.S. rail union raises threat of strike

STORY: Workers at the largest U.S. railroad union voted against a tentative contract deal, raising the possibility of a year-end strike that could cause significant damage to the U.S. economy and strand vital shipments of food and fuel.

Members of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers – or SMART-TD - narrowly rejected the deal, brokered in September by a board appointed by U.S. President Joe Biden. Three other unions also voted no.

Among the issues: sick leave and attendance policies. There are no paid sick days under the tentative deal. The unions had asked for 15; the railroads responded with one personal day.

Arthur Wheaton is Director of Labor Studies at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

"Unlike the common perception that this is a fight about money, it's not. [FLASH] The fight here is about a unilateral change imposed by the railways for attendance. So they put in a new attendance policy which means you can get fired for going to the doctor. You can get fired for whatever reason it is because every time you miss a shift or are late or call in sick, it deducts points off of this system."

Jeremy Ferguson, President of the SMART-TD union, believes railroad companies are putting Wall Street ahead of employees.

"It was profits above all else." [FLASH] “I think a day of reckoning is coming that they are going to have to realize, one way or another, that they have to treat their employees with respect.”

Railroads have slashed labor and other costs to bolster profits and are fiercely opposed to adding paid sick time that would require them to hire more staff. Those operators, which include Union Pacific, Berkshire Hathaway’s BNSF and CSX, say the contract deal has the most generous wage package in almost 50 years of national rail negotiations.

And not all unions think it’s a bad deal.

Dennis Pierce is National President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen – or the BLET - which voted in favor of the contract.

“…our agreement also allows our on-property bargaining folks to go in and negotiate additional agreement language that will give our guys access to predictable days off for the first time ever. So there are gains that the union came away with from that, but the other unions who have not ratified have not done so because of the anger and the animosity between the railroads and their employees out there in the field."

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

Major U.S. industry groups complain that rail industry cost cuts have hurt service. This week, several renewed their calls for Biden and Congress to swiftly intervene to prevent a strike or employer lockout ahead of the holiday season.