(CNN) – America faces a growing risk of a crippling national freight strike within two weeks after rank-and-file members of the nation’s largest railroad union, which represents the industry’s drivers, rejected a deal provisional labor with the freight railroads, the union. announced on Monday.
The nation’s second-largest railroad union, which represents engineers, ratified its own contract. But the drivers’ failure to ratify their own agreement is another setback to efforts to avert a crippling rail strike across the country.
The two unions are the transportation division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, Transportation union (SMART-TD), which represents about 28,000 drivers, and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainers (BLET), which represents about 24,000 engineers. Engineers and drivers make up the two-person train crews. The two unions reached tentative agreements in September in a marathon 20-hour bargaining session just hours before their previous strike deadlines.
President Joe Biden called these deals
a “A victory for tens of thousands of railway workers and for their dignity and the dignity of their work.” He had intervened directly in the final round of talks, but his praise of the deals was not enough to win the approval of rank-and-file members of the directors’ union.
The agreements almost won the necessary support to be ratified by both unions. It was ratified by the engineers, with 53.5% voting in favor, while an apparent majority of the directors also voted in favor of ratification.
But ultimately the directors’ vote failed because union rules require each of the union’s five classes of workers to approve the deal for it to pass. While 64.5% of members who go to the locomotives with the engineers supported the deal, 50.87% of the train and engine service members of the union voted against ratification. These members did not get the same improvement in contract language that other SMART-TD members won in the final negotiations, and this apparently led to the deal’s failure.
Directors will continue to work as negotiations resume to try to find an agreement that is acceptable to members. Negotiators face a December 9 strike deadline.
The no vote follows rejections of similar contracts by rank-and-file members of three other rail unions: one representing track maintenance workers, another whose members maintain and operate the signal system and a third representing locomotive mechanics and welders.
If even one of the dozen railroad unions went on strike, the other 11 would honor the pickets, shutting down the railroads.
If unions can’t reach new deals before strike deadlines, Congress could order railroad workers to stay on the job or go back to work.
Congress is already facing calls from a wide range of business groups to act to prevent a strike. About 30% of the country’s freight moves by rail, when measured by the weight of the freight and the distance it travels. A strike could therefore cause widespread disruption to the country’s still struggling supply chain and wider economy. If the strike drags on for a prolonged period, it could lead to widespread shortages and higher prices of goods such as fuel and food.
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