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Labor secretary says Congress should block rail strikes without new deals

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New York
CNN Business

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh says he hopes negotiators between the railroads and some railroad unions can reach new labor agreements and avert a potential strike. But he said that without a deal he expects Congress to step in and impose contracts on disgruntled rank-and-file union members.

The declaration is a blow to the influence of the unions in their attempt to win a contract that their members will accept.

Two rail unions reached tentative labor agreements with the railroads in September, before the strike deadline, only to have their members vote against ratifying them.

“My goal is to get those two unions back to the table with the companies and do this,” Walsh told CNN on Friday. He said a negotiated settlement would be “the best thing we can do is avoid any kind of strike or rail slowdown.”

Walsh participated in a 20-hour bargaining session that reached tentative labor agreements just hours before the September 16 strike deadline. He said that if no new agreements are negotiated, Congress would have to impose a contract on the unions., as a way to keep union members on the job.

If “for some reason [one of the unions] does not reach an agreement with the companies then… Congress will have to take measures to avoid a strike in our country”, he said.

One of those two unions, the track maintenance workers belonging to the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Clerks Division, will strike as soon as November 19 without a new agreement, while the other, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, I could walk. on December 4. BMWED members voted 57% against the proposed agreement, while members of the Signalmen union voted 60% against the agreements.

If any rail union went on strike, all rail unions, collectively representing some 110,000 members, would honor their pickets and refuse to work, crippling the nation’s freight railroads. That would be a huge blow to the US economy, entangling still-struggling supply chains and causing widespread bottlenecks and shortages.

About 30% of US freight, measured by weight and distance traveled, moves by rail. The prices of goods, from gasoline to food to cars, could skyrocket if the trains stop. Additionally, factories could be forced to temporarily close due to parts shortages. Products that consumers want to buy during the holiday season could be missing from store shelves.

Walsh’s statement, while unwelcome, did not come as a surprise to Michael Baldwin, president of the Signalmen union. Many business groups were urging Congress to act before the September 16 strike deadline, and two Republican senators, Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Richard Burr of North Carolina, had introduced legislation that would have forced a contract on unions. .
“Republicans were prepared to pass something then,” Baldwin said. “They have that ability.”

But at the time Democrats refused to act to block a possible strike. Sen. Richard Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, told CNN at the time that “I don’t think we’re likely to intervene.” He said avoiding a strike “depends on the negotiating parties taking the reins.”

The Association of American Railroads said it is counting on Congress to act if no new agreements can be reached.

“Nobody wants a strike to happen, and everything we have done throughout this process has been focused on reaching an agreement and avoiding even the threat of one,” the group’s statement said. “However, if we are unable to reach ratified agreements, Congress has historically stepped in to prevent a service interruption.”

Three unions have yet to finish their own ratification votes, including the two largest unions, which represent train drivers and conductors who make up the two-person crews on each train.

The results of the most recent vote, by a 5,000-member unit of the train drivers’ union representing locomotive mechanics and maintenance workers, were announced on Saturday: It passed with just 52% of the vote. Such a narrow margin is another sign of the widespread anger among rank-and-file rail workers with current labor agreements.

The unions want the possibility of going on strike, believing that this will put pressure on the railway management to negotiate. The threat that Congress could act to impose a contract takes away much of the influence unions need to reach an agreement.

The deals that have been turned down are lucrative: they include a immediate 14% raise with retroactive wages dating back to 2020 and wage increases totaling 24% over the four-year contracts, which run from 2020 to 2024. They also give union members cash bonuses of $1,000 a year.

In total, the back pay and bonuses will give union members an average payment of $11,000 per worker once the agreement is ratified.

But salary was never the main point of conflict in these negotiations. The main problem that led to the foundation of BMWED and Signalmen is the lack of paid sick days in the rejected tentative labor agreements. Railroad management has already rejected BMWED’s request to add sick days to the next tentative agreement to get agreement members to ratify it.

Historically, unions have agreed to contracts without traditional paid sick days in exchange for higher pay for the days they work. Workers who only need one or two days off when sick are expected to make up the time with other work days or lose pay. And there is payment for longer-term medical leave. While six of the other unions agreed to the tentative agreements without paid sick days, these two unions voted against.

In response to Walsh’s comment, BMWED said it does not want or need Congress to intervene.

“Congress should not have to intervene. Railroads should provide paid sick leave to their employees,” the statement from him said. “They have the money to do it and it would literally cost them a penny out of every dollar of record profits to provide it. It’s just 2% of what CSX, NS and UP have spent so far this year on share buybacks. It’s literally nothing to them, but they refuse to provide it.”

Congress would be free to impose any contract it wanted on the unions and the railroads, including one that includes terms the unions might want, or one that would be far less attractive than the one their members have already rejected.

Any action Congress takes would require a level of bipartisanship. Even if Republicans win control of one or both houses of Congress in next week’s midterm elections, the Congress that meets in November and December would be a so-called “Lame Duck Congress” made up of current members, not newly elected members, so the Democrats would still be in control.

Baldwin said the Signalmen and railroad management held a virtual bargaining session this week and will meet in person next week.

“The parties are trying to solve the problem, that is the best result,” he said.

– CNN’s Vanessa Yurkevich contributed to this report

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