The threat of a strike looms as the largest rail union rejects a labor agreement

A major railroad union announced Monday that its members had voted to reject a preliminary labor deal brokered by the Biden administration, opening the door to a strike as soon as Dec. 9.

More than 53% of the 28,000 members of the transportation division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers International (SMART-TD) voted Sunday to reject the terms of a proposal designed to resolve an ongoing contract dispute between the nation’s major railroad companies and unions that represent their workforce.

SMART-TD, the largest of the unions involved in the talks, and three other unions unhappy with the proposed deal are now back in talks with the National Carrier Conference Committee, which represents the railroad. Nine others — including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Railroad Workers, the second largest — have ratified their agreements.

“All of this can be resolved through negotiations and without a strike,” said SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson. “A settlement will be in the best interests of workers, railroads, shippers and the American people.”

A potential strike could cost more than $2 billion a day, according to a report prepared by the Association of American Railroads, a rail industry group. U.S. railroads carry about 6,300 million carloads of food and agricultural products daily that could be disrupted by the strike, the report said.

The Brotherhood of Rail Signalers (BRS), a 6,600-member union, could be the first to strike, with its cooling-off period set to expire on December 6. The other three, including SMART-TD, the Brotherhood of Maintenance Way Employees (BMWED) and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders, Blacksmiths, Blacksmiths and Helpers (IBB) will be able to go on strike on December 9.

AAR and agricultural industry groups are pressuring Congress to prevent a potential strike if an agreement is not reached. AAR’s release said the group “remains committed” to negotiating a deal with unions, but called on Congress to force those who refused to comply with the terms recommended by the President’s Emergency Management Council if disagreements persist.

“Railway is open to new deals based on the PEB with our remaining unions, but the window continues to narrow as the deadline rapidly approaches,” Jeffries said. “Let’s be clear: If the rest of the unions don’t accept the deal, Congress must be prepared to act and avoid a catastrophic hit to our $2 billion-a-day economy.”

More than 190 farm groups, including the National Grain and Feed Association, also sent a letter to the Congress leadership November 3 with a call to prevent a strike.

The groups noted in the letter that low water levels in the Mississippi River are already a problem for grain shippers. They said the combination of the barge problems and the rail strike would be “disastrous” for the US economy.

“Any additional rail disruption would have an immediate impact on the nation’s food and agriculture industry, as well as the broader supply chain,” said NGFA President and CEO Mike Seifert. “The risk in both domestic and international markets is real. Congress must take bipartisan action to prevent a strike or lockout.”

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