Congress Votes to Avert Rail Strike


As of yesterday (Dec. 1), Congress approved legislation to prevent an impending rail strike, taking up a measure to impose a labor agreement to increase worker pay and provide additional paid leave. Late afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that the Senate would be taking three votes with hopes to resolve disputes between freight railroads and their unions.

While Senate reached an agreement to hold three votes in succession, all of them required 60 votes for approval. Typically, this process takes days of procedural votes to pass a bill, but NBC News reports that lawmakers reached unanimous agreement in this case to vote within minutes.

The first vote was an amendment that would extend the “cooling off period" giving the relevant parties an extra 60 days beyond the deadline to keep negotiation an agreement. That amendment reportedly failed on a 26-29 vote.

The second vote to include seven days of paid sick leave for rail workers as part of the agreement failed in 52-43 vote. The final vote to impose the tentative agreement from September passed in an 81-15 vote.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had urged the chamber to approve the paid sick leave amendment and the House deal because not doing so “would be extremely damaging to the country.”

With hopes of averting a rail strike, the U.S. House of Representatives had approved the legislation on Wednesday to impose a labor agreement for railroad companies and unions, including increased wages and sick leave.

Passing the deal to impose the legislation would prevent rail shutdowns, which could cause shortages, spike prices and halt factory production, in addition to disrupting commuter rail services for up to seven million travelers a day.

About the Strike

While labor agreement negotiations have been stretching on for more than two years according to reports, a large factor in the strike agreement is the new point system attendance policy that was implemented in February by BNSF Railway, one of the largest railroad freight networks in North America.

Workers were reportedly allotted 30 career attendance points and doked several points for taking days off, with points varying on the time of the week and days designated as high-impact days.

Four points could be earned back after working uninterrupted 14 days. Before this policy, workers were allotted five weekdays off a month and two weekend days off. According to reports, workers were also continuously on call with just over an hour to report to work.

By March, workers and unions representing over 17,000 workers criticized the new system for being more restrictive, incentivizing going to work fatigued or ill, and increasing threats of discipline. At the time, a spokesperson for BNSF Railway argued the new attendance policy would provide more predictability for train crews and provide more reliable crew availability.

In July, President Joe Biden created the Presidential Emergency Board to resolve the ongoing dispute between major freight rail carriers and unions. The board reportedly creates recommendations under a principle known as pattern bargaining, which is the process used by trade unions and employers where demands and entitlements are made.

In September, rail union leaders and carriers agreed to a tentative deal that included pay raises for members. The deal was reached after about 20 hours of talks brokered by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.

The contract offer included “better pay, improved working conditions,” Biden said in a statement, in addition to peace of mind for workers regarding health-care costs. Wages were set to jump 24% by 2014, including an immediate 14% increase.

This brought the average payment of $11,000 per worker once a deal was ratified, alongside $1,000 bonuses annually for five years. Additionally, workers would not have to absorb higher health-care deductibles or copays.

However, many union workers reportedly voted against the deal, largely regarding sick days and scheduling. The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED), the third largest of the major freight railroad unions, rejected the agreement in October, with 57% of union workers opposing.

“The lack of paid sick time off was the most cited and specific concern of membership. It was especially evident during the pandemic that it was a major problem,” said a statement from the union. “The railroads have so far not addressed it in any meaningful way.”

At the time, reports indicated that the BWMED would enter negotiations with the association that represents management at the nation’s major freight railroads in an effort to reach a new deal. The strike deadline was updated to Nov. 19.

The other largest two unions, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, Transportation union, which represents conductors, and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which represents engineers, had also yet to vote, with their outcomes also providing a “toss-up.”

On Nov. 9, the BMWED agreed to extend negotiations with the railroads until at least Dec. 4, the deadline set by the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen.

The Washington Post reports that if one union strikes, all are likely to walk out in solidarity. The unions are also in continued negotiations with the carriers.

Government Action

With the December deadline looming, on Nov. 28, President Biden asked Congress to intervene and block the railroad strike. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded that lawmakers would take up legislation to impose the deal that unions agreed to in September.

Under the Railway Labor Act of 1926, Congress can intervene in the case of a railway strike to impose a contract on the railroads to block or stop a rail strike.

“Let me be clear: a rail shutdown would devastate our economy,” Biden said in a statement. “Without freight rail, many U.S. industries would shut down.”

“We are reluctant to bypass the standard ratification process for the Tentative Agreement — but we must act to prevent a catastrophic nationwide rail strike, which would grind our economy to a halt,” Pelosi said.

According to an analysis from the Anderson Economic Group, a freight rail strike could cost the U.S. economy $1 billion in its first week alone. The primary information the estimate is based on includes volume, loads, types of cargo, energy sources for utilities, coal inventories, oil uses by pipeline, and food and agricultural products sent by rail. 

“Calculations show a first-day impact of approximately $60 million, including $30.9 million for lost freight, $3.8 million for long-term passenger rail disruption and $25 million in lost railroad industry wages,” the analysis revealed.

Passed in a 290 to 137 vote, which was largely bipartisan, the House voted to impose the adoption of the tentative agreement on Nov. 30. In a separate 221 to 2017 vote, a provision was added to the rail agreement that would increase the number of paid sick days from one to seven.

“The BMWED applauds the representatives in Congress and any Senators that will stand in support of Railroad Workers receiving paid sick leave.  The additional legislation needs to pass so that Railroad Workers will have basic protections against illness, and protection from punishment from the railroads when Workers are most vulnerable,” wrote the BMWED in a statement following the vote.

“This should not be a political issue; this is an issue about protecting our Workers who ensure the nation's rail infrastructure and supply chain function as best as possible.  Representatives on both sides of the aisle should unanimously support paid sick days for Railroad Workers because it is good for the railroads, it is good for their customers, it is good for the American economy and it is good for the long-term stability and vitality of the railroad industry.”

On Thursday, Senate struck a deal to take three votes in hopes to resolve the contract dispute. According to Politico, assuming the last vote would succeed,  it would put an end to the turmoil over a freight rail strike that was possible starting Dec. 9, but whose impacts would start being felt as soon as this weekend.


Tagged categories: Business matters; Business operations; Economy; Government; Labor; NA; North America; President Biden; Program/Project Management; Rail; Railcars; Unions; Workers

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