Another one of the 12 railroad unions narrowly approved its deal with the major freight railroads Saturday, offering some hope that the contract dispute might be resolved without a strike even though two other unions rejected their agreements last month.
Now that 52% of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers members who voted approved their deal, seven railroad unions have ratified contracts that include 24% raises and $5,000 in bonuses, but all 12 have to approve contracts to prevent a strike.
Concerns remain about the possibility of an economically devastating strike because the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division and Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen unions voted down their contracts, and many workers say these deals just don't address their quality-of life concerns. No strike is imminent because those unions agreed to return to the bargaining table to try to work out a new deal, but those talks have been deadlocked over the unions' demands for paid sick time and there is a Nov. 19 deadline.
The railroads have rejected union demands for paid sick time because they say the deals they've been offering include higher wages that are intended to compensate workers for the lack of sick time and their other quality of life concerns. The railroads want any deal to closely follow the recommendations made this summer by a special panel of arbitrators that President Joe Biden appointed.
The railroads have also maintained that the unions have agreed over the years to forego paid sick leave in favor of better wages and strong short-term disability benefits.
The group that negotiates on behalf of Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, BNSF, Kansas City Southern, CSX and other railroads said the deal the Machinists approved includes "the largest wage package in nearly five decades" and implements the recommendations the Presidential Emergency Board made.
The deal the Machinists approved this weekend was the second one they voted on after rejecting their first agreement. This one includes all the raises and an additional paid leave day that was in the original deal, but it also included several additional benefits including a cap on health insurance expenses, an agreement that the railroads will study how much overtime employees are being forced to work and a promise that each railroad will negotiate individually over expense reimbursement.
The railroads also promised the Machinists that they won’t force workers to share hotel rooms when they’re on the road for work.
"Our union recognizes that the agreement wasn’t accepted overwhelmingly, so our team will continue conversing with our members at our rail yards across the nation," the Machinists union's District 19 unit said in a statement. "This agreement is the first step in addressing some of the issues in our industry. Our fight was able to shine a light on the work-life balance issues as well as the lack of proper paid sick leave."
Three other unions are scheduled to vote later this month, including the largest ones that represent engineers and conductors.
The workers represented by the Machinists union generally have more regular schedules than the engineers and conductors who say the railroads' strict attendance policies keep them on call 24/7. And the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers unions won't even release the results of their votes until after the current Nov. 19 deadline in the BMWED talks.
Because of the fears about a possible strike, business groups have urged Biden and Congress to be ready to intervene if both sides can't reach an agreement. Biden played an active role in securing these original deals back in September, and Congress has the power to block a strike and impose terms on the workers if there is a walkout.