Possible rail strike pushed back until December

Avoiding a strike has been a top priority for the freight railroads in America as railway unions have worked to reach labor agreements. The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED) has set to potentially begin a strike on Nov. 19. For now, that possibility has been mitigated, as reported by Freightwaves.

BMWED has decided to restrain from any striking action until the beginning of December. They supported this decision by saying it allows the railways to create a satisfactory labor agreement without the added pressure of a strike.

Members of BMWED must remain in a status quo period, also referred to as “cooling off period,” to accord with federal law. This is a period where both the unions and the railways have to avoid any disruptions to work or attempt to help themselves as a strike looms. This period will last until the ratification of labor agreements for three unions: the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers Transportation Division (SMART), and the Brotherhood of Signalmen (BRS).

The status quo period for BRS will last until at least Dec. 4, but could extend until Dec. 9, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR). Having an extended status quo period gives both BMWED and BRS additional time to reach an agreement between themselves and the railways.

“We will now have an opportunity to educate Congress and obtain a better bill written for railroad workers, not the railroads,” BMWED said. “Joining with the BRS and possibly the operating crafts will also improve our chances of not having Congress intervene on the railroads behalf and instead allow us to strike if necessary. This ultimately strengthens our chances to get paid sick leave.”

BMWED has called public attention to a bill recently introduced by Senators Richard Burr and Roger Wicker which stops unions from striking, permits any tentative agreement to be held as rule, and omits any discourse on agreements for away-from-home charges.

In reaction to the railways beginning to slow down their operations, the union said that such action “would be a premature exercise of self-help by the railroads and a violation of their common carrier obligations to provide services to their customers” and were a “manipulative attempt to instigate Congress to intervene against the interests of railroad workers.”

BMWED commented on the finality of them pushing their strike date to early December.

“This is the railroads’ last chance to do the right thing by voluntarily agreeing to provide paid sick leave to all employees,” the union said. “If the railroads fail to give up one penny of every dollar of profit for paid sick leave for their highly valued employees by Dec. 8, and there is either a strike or lockout or both, then the railroads will be responsible for the imposition of a shutdown of their operations and the economic harms to its customers, the country’s economic supply chain and the entire U.S. economy.”

The union also commented on Congress’ involvement with, specifically, the railways in case of a strike.

“Congress should not intervene and rescue the railroads if they continue to refuse to provide railroad workers with paid sick leave,” BMWED said. “But, if Congress does intervene, then we demand that Congress must side with the workers by imposing the tentative national agreement and carrier specific agreements along with paid sick leave for all railroad workers.”

The National Carriers Conference Committee (NCCC), who is representing the railways during labor negotiations, responded to these statements from BMWED.

“(The railways) will remain engaged with BMWED throughout the extended cooling off period and will continue to seek an agreement based on the framework recommended by Presidential Emergency Board 250,” NCCC said. “Agreements based on the PEB’s recommendations were endorsed by President Biden as a ‘win for tens of thousands of rail workers’ and have been ratified by the members of seven other unions.” 

The AAR commented that sticking to a cooling off period allows for unions to finalize their ratifications and allows for overall greater clarity in an intense situation.

“This agreement to extend the cooling off period affords all unionized employees the opportunity to vote on their agreements free of a looming strike threat,” said Ian Jefferies, AAR president and CEO. “Our goal remains the same — successfully completing this round of bargaining — and we stand ready to reach an agreement with BMWED based upon the Presidential Emergency Board’s recommendations.”