OMAHA, Nebraska – The two largest train unions in the United States worked on Wednesday to dispel misconceptions about the contract agreements that prevented a statewide strike.
The unions have been combating allegations on social media that they will impose the agreements on workers if they vote against them. In a piece published earlier this month, a railroad trade newspaper suggested that the possibility existed.
And several newly created worker groups that assisted at railyards across the country last week have been lobbying workers to reject the proposed contracts, with some harboring profound resentment over how the railroads have treated them in recent years.
“The problem is to first overcome their anger,” said Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen president Dennis Pierce. “The teaching process we are currently undergoing is intended to help them focus on the facts of the transaction rather than the emotions they’ve experienced. And that’s no easy task.”
He stated that “outsiders and insiders with their own interests” are attempting to agitate everyone.
Instead, the BLET and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers are promoting the potential benefits of the five-year contracts, which include 24% raises and $5,000 in bonuses, to their members. Union leaders are emphasizing that the only way members will be compelled to sign a contract is if Congress intervenes to prevent a strike, given that so many firms rely on railroads to transport raw materials and completed goods.
Workers at Union Pacific, BNSF, Norfolk Southern, CSX, Kansas City Southern, and other railroads were prepared to strike until the Biden administration mediated a deal prevented a mid-September strike. Now, unions representing 115,000 workers must sign their contracts over the next six weeks to prevent a walkout. Wednesday, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers joined two smaller rail unions in approving their own treaties.
The financial terms of these agreements closely resemble those that a special board of arbitrators that Vice President Biden appointed this summer, but that board did not resolve all of the worker concerns regarding schedules and workloads after the major railroads reduced their workforces over the past six years.
Conductors and engineers have been particularly dissatisfied with quality-of-life issues because, according to them, the rigorous attendance requirements railroads impose to ensure they have sufficient personnel make it difficult to take time off and keep them on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Jeremy Ferguson, the president of the SMART-TD union, acknowledged in a video he sent to his members that this agreement “does not eliminate the entire attendance regulation as we requested,” but he noted that it does feature some significant advances.
The agreement obtained by the unions provides for three unpaid leave days per year for medical appointments, which must be planned 30 days in advance on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays. In addition, the railroads agreed not to lay off employees who are hospitalized and stated they would negotiate with each railroad to ensure that employees have regularly planned days off.
Pierce stated that unions concentrated on medical leave since this appeared to be the area where the most damage was being done. In one case highlighted by the, a BNSF engineer who missed a doctor’s appointment earlier this year because of fear of being penalized under the railroad’s attendance rules suffered a heart attack on a train a few weeks later and died.
Ferguson also underlined that unions were able to protect two-person crews by stopping railways from pushing them into arbitration over proposals to reduce train crews to a single member. For years, unions have violently resisted this idea because to safety and job security concerns.