US railroads are confident a strike can be averted, but the clock is ticking as one of the unions involved will be in a strike position on 5 December if a deal is not reached.
After voting on the new contracts negotiated following recommendations from President Bidenâ€™s Presidential Advisory Board (PEB), four of 12 US rail unions rejected the deals on offer and will soon be in a strike position.
One of the Unions is the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS), which has its own cooling off period ending on 4 December, meaning the BRS could strike on 5 December. The other three unions have cooling off periods that end on 8 December and could, therefore, strike on 9 December.
The Association of America Railroads (AAR) claims a rail strike could cost the US economy more than $2 billion a day. Multiple industry groups and associations are calling for Congress to intervene and the Whitehouse has this week said President Biden is â€œinvolved directlyâ€ in trying to resolve the longstanding impasse between railroads and their labour unions, although no further details were given.
The President was earlier involved in reaching agreement on draft contracts with union leaders following the recommendations from the PEB. The contracts provided a 24% wage increase over the period 2020 to 2024, but railroads did not agree to demands for sick leave and other â€œquality of life issuesâ€. When the contracts were put to votes eight of 12 unions accepted the contracts but four rejected the terms.
The AAR is calling on Congress to be ready to act if further negotiations fail. â€œWhile railroads remain committed to reaching agreements with the remaining unions, the timeline for those to occur is short. Congress has historically intervened to prevent rail system disruptions. If the four unions remain unwilling to enter agreements within the bounds of the PEBâ€™s framework, Congress must be prepared to act and institute the terms supported by the majority of the unions, guaranteeing certainty for rail customers and the broader economy,â€ AAR said in an update.
Jeremy R. Ferguson, President â€“ Transportation Division of SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, has advised its members that â€œThe National Carriersâ€™ Conference Committee (NCCC) has already indicated to us that they do notÂ intend to engage in further bargaining over these issuesâ€, i.e. the demands for sick leave. â€œThis has been their behaviour to the other unions that have failed to ratify during this round of bargaining. Nonetheless, SMART-TDâ€™s negotiating team will return to the table and invite the NCCC to reopen good-faith negotiations during this period.â€
Ferguson said SMART will be in a strike position at 12:01 Eastern time on Friday, 9 December, and that any strike (or â€œself-helpâ€) will be triggered with a final authorisation. â€œHowever, there is a distinct possibility that Congress may pass legislation to resolve this dispute and/or impose an agreement prior to the expiration of our current cooling-off period. In that event, no self-help authorisation can be issued,â€ he said.
In an interview with CNN today AAR CEO Ian Jeffries claimed there is "certainly a path forward there. The railroads have show a willingness and a commitment to reach agreements based on the recommendations of President Bidenâ€™s Emergency Board, and thatâ€™s something that we stand by." Those recommendations, however, did not include the sick leave provisions the Unions are demanding, and which the railroads remain steadfast in refusing to accept.
With neither side prepared to budge, intervention by Congress seems the most likely outcome.Â The last US Railroad strike was in 1992 and lasted for two days before Congress intervened.