Threat of Rail Strike Is Not Over
News broke on Thursday of last week that a tentative agreement had been reached between the railroads and the two largest rail worker unions, BLET and SMART-TD, preventing a supply-chain-disrupting strike that looked likely to happen on the following day.
However, the tentative agreement may have only postponed a strike. Indeed, a rail strike remains a very real threat.
Committee of Union Members Call Tentative Agreement Betrayal
Heralded as a great victory by the Biden Administration and much of legacy media, the tentative agreement is not being met with such approval by rank-and-file members of the unions. Some union members even feel betrayed by their union leaders for making a tentative agreement.
The recently formed Rail Workers Rank-and-File Committee (RWRFC) issued a statement on Tuesday (September 20th) that was published on the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) that goes so far as to say making this tentative agreement shows the union leaders don’t represent the rail workers:
The rail unions’ agreement of September 15, worked out behind our backs in the dead of night, is not only a betrayal of railroaders that seeks to enforce the Presidential Emergency Board report with only minor tweaks. It is also a flagrant violation of the democratic will of the membership and the bedrock principles of the labor movement. By their own actions, the bureaucrats that run the BLET, SMART-TD and the other 10 unions have shown that they don’t represent us, but the railroads, the government and Wall Street.
In its founding statement issued on September 1, the RWRFC called the Presidential Emergency Board’s (PEB) report “a slap in the face” and called on workers at all Class 1 railroads in the United States “to organize now to prepare for strike action.”
Mixed Results in Rejection and Acceptance of Agreements
Whenever tentative contract agreements are reached between employer groups and major unions, there are usually factions within the unions who oppose the agreement. Such groups, for example, rose within the ILWU when it came time to vote for ratifying the agreement that was finally reached in the contentious 2014-15 contract negotiations. Usually, these groups don’t represent the majority of workers, and agreements get ratified. However, there are indicators that ratification may not happen with this rail agreement.
Rail workers in smaller unions that reached tentative agreements with the railroads after recommendations were given from the PEB already voted to reject the agreements. At least one of those unions is only delaying strike action until a week from now to see if a better agreement can be reached in that time.
Nick Savvides reported in a Loadstar article titled “Biden hails US rail agreement – but unions are not on board yet“:
The International Association of Machinists (IAM) and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalman (BRS) have both rejected the deal and with rail workers not expected to cross picket lines, the possibility of delays and cancellations remains very real.
In a statement published on 14 September IAM said that 4,900 of its members had voted to reject the deal reached with the employers’ side, the National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC).
According to IAM, its members had agreed to delay any strike action until 29 September in the hope that the union can negotiate changes with the NCCC.
Not all unions rejected the new agreements. The Transportation Communications Union and Brotherhood Railway Carmen Division saw their members vote to ratify.
RWRFC’s Complaints Against Agreement & Union Leadership
It’s hard to know how many railroad workers in BLET and SMART-TD, as well as the other rail worker unions, support the sentiments of the RWRFC, but the committee says it sponsored a meeting on September 14th that was attended by over 500 workers to plan a nationwide strike.
Here are the complaints the committee published against the tentative agreement and the union leadership:
The deal between the unions, the companies and the White House, which was worked out as railroaders were meeting, is a flagrant and deliberate violation of all three points:
First, it is a de-facto injunction, enforcing through the collaboration of the unions and the White House a ban on a national strike that both the Democrats and Republicans were prepared to pass in Congress on September 16.
Second, it includes pay increases below the rate of inflation, maintains Hi Viz, PSR and other punitive attendance policies, would give us only four sicks for an entire year (only one of which would be paid) and does nothing to end the push for one-man crews.
Third, it keeps us working while the unions work to delay a strike. The unions have admitted that a contract does not even exist yet. This is a violation of the basic principle of the labor movement, “no contract, no work.” The unions are now stretching the voting process out for weeks in a bid to demoralize us and soften us up so that they can pass a contract we do not support.
The agreement is only the latest in a long train of violations of our most basic, elemental rights, including:
– Hoarding our dues money to finance their salaries while paying $0 in strike pay;
– Loyally enforcing court injunctions and threatening to expose workers to legal action;
– Ignoring a 99.5 percent strike vote in July, and instead calling for Biden to appoint the PEB;
– Censoring us on social media and suppressing discussion at local meetings;
– Dividing us up by union, announcing separate deals in a bid to break our unity and solidarity.
Union Chiefs May Override Member Votes
We know Congress has the power to stop a strike by forcing the unions to accept the contract. but it appears that union leadership could also force the contract on their members, overriding votes to reject the tentative agreements.
[Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee] said there is nothing in the Railway Labor Act that requires that rank-and-file workers vote to ratify union contracts, meaning union bosses can bypass such votes.
“They’ve also been known to impose a contract even after workers vote overwhelmingly to reject it,” he said.
In a Railway Age article, Frank N. Wilner gave a couple examples of union chiefs overriding member votes:
In 1996, the leadership of the United Transportation Union—now the Transportation Division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD)—overrode its members’ rejection of a tentative agreement on wages, benefits and work rules. Rather than return to the negotiating table or order a work stoppage, either of which was sought by members, the union’s leadership made a deal with carriers to send the member-rejected tentative contract to binding arbitration, where a carrier-friendly award was imposed.
In 2018, the leadership of the Teamsters Union, of which the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) is an affiliate, overrode a vote of members rejecting a tentative wage pact with UPS…. Note that Teamsters agreements are negotiated under provisions of the National Labor Relations Act, not the Railway Labor Act (RLA), although neither speaks directly to the membership ratification process.
Economic & Political Pressure
I don’t have to tell shippers who read this blog how important the railroads are to supply chains and the U.S. economy. There’s also a great deal of political impact these agreements versus rail shutdowns have with midterm elections coming up.
Wilner reports there’s talk about the political investment of union leaders in the Democratic Party might be more likely to override members votes:
Notwithstanding the Biden Administration basking in the political sunlight of tentative agreements being reached, the threat of an economy-jolting nationwide rail shutdown remains—and will be pinned on Biden and Democrats if it occurs prior to mid-term elections in November. Hence, there’s chatter as to whether rail labor leaders, very much invested in Democratic success in mid-term elections, might override a membership rejection of the tentative agreement or, alternatively, seek binding arbitration so as to avoid a work stoppage damaging to Democratic candidates.
Mix, quoted in the Fox Business article, talks about the political pressure being put on union members:
Still, “given the political headache it would create for the Biden administration for this deal to fall apart now, if the union officials do allow a vote, rank-and-file workers will be under tremendous pressure to ratify the deal,” Mix added.
This means “agreeing to a contract they otherwise wouldn’t because it will advance the political goals of Big Labor at this critical moment just before the Midterms,” he said.
That there is political pressure on the union members, and that pressure is also applied by media that often acts as the PR arm of the political parties, is clear in the RWRFC’s statement when the committee writes:
We cannot be intimidated by the threat of Congressional intervention or by media attempts to demonize us as “selfish.” As far as American workers are concerned, railroaders have far more legitimacy than Congress or the corporate media.
Clearly, the rail worker fight hasn’t ended with the tentative agreements, keeping us on alert for potential strike that is still very possible.