Reported by Justin Franz for the Montana Free Press.
A sense of deja vu is overtaking the U.S. railroad industry this week as labor leaders and major railroad representatives try to figure out how to avoid a strike that could bring freight and passenger trains to a halt in the middle of the busy holiday shipping season.
It’s a scenario eerily similar to one that played out just over two months ago, when White House officials helped broker an eleventh-hour deal to avoid a national strike back in September. But that deal was only temporary while it awaited ratification votes by workers represented by 12 different labor unions.
On Monday, the last and biggest of the 12 unions announced the results of their contract votes: Locomotive engineers voted in favor of the agreement, 54% for and 47% against, but conductors voted against it 51% to 49%. The conductors’ union, SMART Transportation Division, now joins three smaller unions back at the negotiating table to try and hash out a deal with six of North America’s seven largest railroads to avoid a strike or lockout. They face a Dec. 8 deadline.
Labor leaders, railroad management and President Joe Biden touted the tentative agreement inked back in September as a win for all sides. As part of the contract, railroaders will receive the largest wage increase in 45 years plus a $5,000 bonus. But the contract, the result of years of negotiations, comes at a time of palpable frustration among workers about how the railroads are being run and how workers are being treated. While railroading has always been a tough industry that demands long hours and an unpredictable work schedule, engineers, conductors and others say their working conditions have never been worse. Earlier this year, hundreds of railroaders quit after BNSF Railway enacted a new attendance policy — including in Montana, where the Texas-based railroad employs more than 2,200 people and owns 2,592 miles of track.
“Workers are fed up right now,” AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Greg Regan said last month shortly after two smaller unions voted down their own contracts.
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