Reported by Eleanor Mueller for Politico.
More than half of freight rail workers will vote on proposed contracts next week amid a highly organized effort by some of their colleagues to urge a “no” vote.
It’s the biggest test yet of the Biden administration’s push to avert an economically crippling rail strike after it helped a dozen unions broker a compromise with freight carriers in September. A rebel group, Railroad Workers United, is stoking opposition among members who believe the compromise green-lit by union leaders doesn’t go far enough to address working conditions that have led to severe attrition at the nation’s largest carriers.
So far, seven smaller unions have voted to approve their tentative agreements, while three have voted against — one as recently as Monday.
“There’s a sense of hopelessness amongst a number of working railroaders,” said one of RWU’s leaders, Ron Kaminkow, who is a member of one of the unions voting next week. “The goal of our campaign is to basically empower people to just vote ‘no’ if they actually believe that this thing is not good. Don’t be conned into voting for something that you really don’t want.”
If unions don’t get members on board by the end of an industry-wide cooling-off period Dec. 9, just one could spark a strike that capsizes the nation’s supply chain — stripping store shelves, starving livestock and compromising drinking water. At that point, Congress could be forced to step in and extend the cooling-off period, during which workers are barred from walking off the job — or impose the employer-championed recommendations of a presidentially appointed emergency board.
The presidents of the industry’s two largest unions — Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers-Transportation Division and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen — are criss-crossing the U.S. to buoy support for the proposed contracts before their members’ votes are tallied Monday. They say they’ve gotten them the best deal possible.
“My message is, ‘Guys, we went all the way to the championship. We never backed down,’” SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said from his car recently on the way to yet another event in Boone, Iowa.
But the RWU’s message is resonating with burnt-out freight rail employees frustrated by what they consider employers’ punitive attendance policies, among other things, and critical of the compromises accepted by their union presidents.
RWU is “just trying to get the unions to put the full interest of the membership ahead of everything else,” said one railroad worker, who is not associated with RWU and spoke anonymously to avoid retaliation from their employer. “I can definitely see interest in their message grow significantly.”
One union official called the situation “out of control.”
“There’s going to be lessons learned going into the next round of bargaining about how we … control the narrative a little bit better — and I don’t mean that in the propaganda way, I mean making sure that people have the facts,” said Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department. “This was, for all intents and purposes, the first major national bargaining round in which social media reached this place it is right now.”
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