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The Most Complicated Labor Negotiation in the Country Just Got More Complicated

The two largest freight rail unions split their vote on whether to ratify the proposed collective bargaining agreement, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen and SMART-Transportation Division announced. These 60,000 workers operate one of the country’s most critical infrastructure networks, key to moving products that make the economy function including food and fuel. BLET voted to ratify with 53.5 percent in favor. And 62.48 percent of SMART-TD’s yardmasters also voted to ratify. But SMART-TD’s train and engine service members, who operate the trains, narrowly rejected the agreement with 50.87 percent of the vote. Three other unions have previously rejected the contract and resumed bargaining with the railroads.

Although this technically means a strike is still on the table since one craft rejected the agreement and all unions would respect a picket line in the event one strikes, union leaders signaled in their statements their willingness to reach a settlement in negotiations without a strike.

“SMART-TD members with their votes have spoken, it’s now back to the bargaining table for our operating craft members,” said SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson in a statement. “This can all be settled through negotiations and without a strike. A settlement would be in the best interests of the workers, the railroads, shippers and the American people.”

Although three other unions voted against ratification, SMART-TD and BLET are regarded as the most influential of the 12 unions involved in the highly complex negotiations.

The two unions represent the workers who are subject to the most draconian attendance policies the railroads offer, which Motherboard has been reporting on this year. Many workers Motherboard interviewed regarded this contract negotiation as their last chance to win better working conditions. But they also understood the difficulty involved in winning more humane working conditions given the way railroad contract negotiations work. If they rejected the terms and tried to strike, Congress could force them back to work on any terms it wished, but most likely under the terms of the contract on the table or even the original and slightly worse terms proposed by the Presidential Emergency Board. Even some relatively militant workers admitted rejecting the contract could be a dead end.

Although the outcome of the vote is important, it changes little of the fundamental issues facing U.S. freight rail, its working conditions, and its impact on the economy. The contract on the table has nothing to say about the railroads’ draconian attendance policies—it adds one sick day but railroad workers are largely skeptical that, due to the way their attendance policies work, a sick day on paper will translate into reality or make a meaningful difference in their lives—an issue the railroads have refused to bargain over. The contract has no bearing over the business philosophy that has taken money out of the railroads and put it into Wall Street shareholder pockets, making the railroads slower, more dangerous, less efficient, and a major bottleneck of the American supply chain. And it will only exacerbate the labor shortage railroads are facing since few people want to surrender their entire lives to a corporation, forsaking their friends and family in the process.

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