Fourth Rail Union Rejects Deal—Rail Strike Imminent

With voting by all 12 of the rail unions representing 125,000 rail workers complete, four of them have rejected the deal mediated by the Biden administration September 15, setting the stage for a December 8 strike if no agreement with the railroads is reached by December 4. Although a compromise pay increase of 24 percent was reached in September, the remaining issues have to do with working conditions—especially on-call schedules and paid time off for medical visits. 

The latest voting results were announced the morning of November 21 by the two largest rail unions. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) voted to accept the agreement by a 54 percent to 46 percent margin.  The Transportation Division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) also released the results of their vote.  A small percentage of the SMART-TD union—the yardmasters—voted to accept the agreement with a 62 percent majority.  However, the overwhelming majority of SMART-TD members—engineers, conductors, brakemen—voted against ratification by a slim 50.87 percent majority.

The net result of the split decision within SMART-TD is that one more union has joined three others in not approving the tentative agreement. However, all 12 of the unions had to accept the deal to avoid a strike, since none of the unions will break a picket line. While the BRS currently has a status quo period extending only to December 4, it is expected that all four unions that have rejected the tentative agreement will ultimately have December 8 as the final date for negotiations and agreement to head off a strike.

According to the Association of American Railroads, railroads annually transport 1.5 million carloads of grain—including 340,000 carloads of soybeans.  In addition, 248,000 carloads of processed soybeans (primarily soybean meal and soybean oil) are transported each year.  A total of 691,000 carloads of corn and 305,000 carloads of wheat are annually transported by rail.  Railroads have been, and continue to be, one of the key contributors to U.S. agriculture being the most competitive supplier in the international marketplace. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, railroads transport 29 percent of soybeans, 33 percent of corn and 60 percent of wheat to export terminals.

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Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said even the threat of a strike has already affected crop logistics; “Given the well-documented low-water conditions along the inland waterway system, having this big question mark regarding rail service could not come at a worse time.  Rail service already has not been the lifeline it normally should be, but the potential for a strike or lockout is clearly causing much agitation in agriculture and the broader economy.”    

“As I’ve shared before, an actual rail strike will clearly halt economic activity, but the threat of a rail strike can achieve this as well,” Steenhoek said. “For industries like agriculture, the decisions made today are determining where and how soybeans and grain will be shipped next month, two months from now, etc.  Having a predictable supply chain is essential for agriculture to succeed, but this predictability is clearly impugned as we complete harvest and are in the midst of our key export window.  We certainly want both railroads and rail unions to arrive at an agreement that is beneficial to both sides, but what is critical to agriculture and many other industries is to avoid an actual—or even a threat of—a railroad strike that would add further harm.”

The Soy Transportation Coalition has joined numerous agricultural and other organizations to strongly encourage Congress and the Biden administration to intervene to ensure that a railroad strike or lockout does not occur. Under the Railway Labor Act, Congress has the authority to intervene to force a settlement even against union wishes. But it’s unknown how likely it might be that Democrats in Congress would force a showdown with the unions. A Democratic majority still controls the House of Representatives until January. 

The last rail strike occurred in 1992, after machinists struck CSX railroad over a contract dispute, and other unions supported their walkout. The disruption caused Congress to act swiftly, passing a bipartisan bill in both houses banning both rail strikes and lockouts of rail employees by railroads and forcing arbitration on the parties just before Amtrak workers were set to join the strike.