Freight railroads still believe strike can be avoided

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The trade group, which represents the country’s freight railroads, is confident a strike by more than 100,000 union members can be avoided, even after rank and file members rejected tentative labor agreements reached earlier this autumn.

So far three railway unions have rejected the proposed agreements and will go on strike as early as December 4th. The two largest railway unions, representing conductors and engineers, are due to announce the results of their ratification votes on Monday. The major rail freight companies in the countries are negotiating industry-wide employment contracts with each of the 12 railway unions.

If even one union went on strike, the other 11 would honor the pickets and trigger an industry-wide strike that would paralyze an estimated 30% of the country’s freight movements and cause widespread disruption to the country’s supply chain and economy.

But one of the key voices for the management side of the industry, Ian Jefferies, CEO of the Industry Association of American Railroads, the industry trade group, says he’s confident the railroads can still strike new deals with any union whose members have rejected previous proposals , and that the new membership contracts would be acceptable.

He points out that the Machinists’ Union, one of the unions whose members originally opposed the deal, came back and ratified a slightly revised agreement, although only 52% of members voted in favour.

“There are certainly options, if ratification fails the first time, to sit down and make additional agreements and get them out and get them [tentative agreement] ratified,” Jefferies told CNN in a lengthy interview Thursday. He said the “best outcome” for the industry was to reach agreements that could win ratification votes in all 12 unions.

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But he added that the industry believes Congress can take swift, bipartisan action to block or end a strike if an agreement cannot be reached.

“I don’t think it’s anyone’s goal to get Congress involved, but Congress has a history of showing a willingness to intervene when necessary,” Jefferies said. He referred to the comment made by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who “less than two weeks ago made it clear on CNN that he believes Congress must intervene in the absence of voluntary agreements.”

One of the biggest issues at the moment is sick pay. While management said provisions in existing contracts allow workers to take sick leave, unions say there are too many restrictions and penalties for workers to take sick days that many other workers take for granted. And they are often not paid if they cannot come to work because of illness or injury.

Unions have argued that they should be allowed to strike without Congress intervening to prevent a walkout or order them back to work. The best way to avoid a strike is for the railroads to agree to union demands for paid sick leave.

“Congress shouldn’t have to intervene. The railroads should provide their employees with paid sick leave,” the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employee Division said in a statement earlier this month. This union, representing track maintenance workers, is one of three unions whose members have rejected the previous collective agreements.

“They have the money for it, and it would literally cost them a penny out of every dollar in record profits to provide it,” BMWED said. “That’s just 2% of what the CSX, NS and UP have spent on share buybacks so far this year. It means literally nothing to them, but they refuse to provide it.”

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But Jefferies said the railroads are only willing to make new deals with unions that fall within the recommendations of a three-person body known as the Presidential Emergency Board, or PEB, appointed by President Joe Biden in July to take action from the Both sides listen and come up with a compromise agreement.

“Some of the unions have asked for additional sick days. And the PEB report made its analysis of their request very clear and concise, noting that their request was inadequate and specifically denied,” Jefferies said.

Although railway management has so far rejected union demands for paid sick leave, it is possible to reach an agreement that satisfies both union membership and management. Although he would not discuss the details of proposals that might be mutually acceptable, he said a deal that is within the “framework” of the PEB recommendation “can take many different faces”.

Correction: A previous version of this story’s headline misrepresented the Association of American Railroads. The industry group represents freight railways.