This story originally appeared in Labor Notes on October 11, 2022. It is shared here with permission.
Members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, which build and maintain tracks and bridges, have voted down a national tentative agreement with the freight carriers.
Just under 12,000 of the union’s 23,900 freight workers voted, the union announced on Oct. 10, with 56% voting against the deal.
The leaders said they hope to return to the negotiating table. The union postpones any possible strike until 19 November at the earliest.
In a statement, BMW president Tony Cardwell attributed the rejection to members’ feeling that “management has no respect for their quality of life, exemplified by their stubborn reluctance to increase paid leave, especially for illness.”
Railway workers currently do not receive paid sick days. Teamsters-affiliated BMWE, which was part of a negotiating coalition with the Sheet Metal Workers’ Mechanical Division, had imposed 13 sick days a year, but the carriers refused to budge.
BMWE Rank and File United, a union caucus, released a statement encourage members to organize informational pickets and push for a stronger agreement. “We must together show the porters, politicians and the world that we are not ready yet. Our demands have not been met,” the statement said.
“Our union leadership only has power at the negotiating table if we give it to them.”
The rejection marks a major turning point – political leaders acted as if the deal was sealed.
On September 15, just 20 hours before a national strike deadline, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh… announced a preliminary agreement between the National Carriers’ Conference Committee and the two largest railroad unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Sheet Metal Workers’ Transportation Division (SMART-TD).
As Politics reported, Walsh said: “It’s like, Holy Christ: the magnitude of what would have happened. We’ll never quite understand, thank goodness.”
Of the 12 unions participating in the negotiations, four (the Railroad Electricians (IBEW), the Train Service Directors (ATDA) and the Transportation Communications Union representing clerks and the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen representing workers who inspect and maintain rail cars, are both affiliated. at the Engineers) have ratified agreements.
Members of Machinists District Lodge 19 voted last month to reject their deal. The union has now announced a new provisional agreement. A local lodge leader, Reece Murtagh, wrote a damning letter to the national leadership for handling the strike vote.
BLET and SMART-TD members will begin voting this week. Together, these two unions, which represent conductors and engineers, make up half of the 115,000 union members on class I freight trains.
Could the news from the BMWE affect these votes? Jack, a SMART-TD member from Illinois who asked not to use his last name, thinks that “if another union takes a stand, it will show everyone that it’s possible to fight back.” But he says members are still nervous about Congressional intervention leading to a worse deal.
Postponing a possible strike until after November’s midterm elections eases the pressure on politicians. A November congressional intervention would still take place through a Democrat-controlled Congress, even if Republicans gain a majority in the House or Senate, as newly elected senators and representatives do not take office until January.
The ‘no’ vote partly reflects pent-up anger at the increasingly debilitating conditions at work. As the railroad employers have embraced Precision Scheduled Railroading, they have reduced the workforce, increasing the workload and hours of the workers left over.
Freight railroads have cut more than 20% of their road maintenance jobs in the past six years, according to the Surface Transportation Board, and more than 50,000 jobs in total since 2000.
“I’m not surprised,” said Deven Mantz of BMWE Lodge 1326 in Minot, North Dakota, when he learned the contract had been voted down. “People are pissed, and they want a place to direct it. If we’re not careful, they’ll send it to our union. So our union leadership needs to step up and direct that anger towards the carriers who caused it.”
The two main issues addressed in the Sept. 15 deal brokered by the White House between the railroads and the BLET and SMART-TD were health care costs and time off for medical appointments.
Press releases made it sound like the deal would cause three days of sick leave for railroad workers. But once the actual language came out, what was created turned out to be a little less than sick time: heavily curtailed, unpaid time off for routine or preventive medical appointments, on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday with at least 30 days’ notice, plus no attendance penalties for hospitalization or surgery.
The two unions held a 15-day “question and answer” period before sending the preliminary agreement for a contract vote. Many members were immediately angry at the terms; Ross Grooters, a BLET member in Iowa and activist with the Railroad Workers United mainstream group, tweeted, “I don’t need answers to questions. I want us all to VOTE NO!”
The BMWE, the third largest railway union, was not subject to these agreements, as the union had already reached its own preliminary agreement with the carriers on September 10. But members followed closely as they waited to vote on their own deal.
Voting by mail began on September 20. The union held multiple Zoom calls to various providers to answer questions, and issued a Q&A document addressing wages, bonuses and leisure.
The BMWE’s preliminary agreement largely met recommendations from an August emergency presidential council, including 22% pay increases over the term of the agreement (extended retroactively to 2020 and runs through December 31, 2024), and adding an additional paid day off per year, but no sick leave.
The deal included a $1,000 annual bonus for each of the five years, and employees’ monthly health care premium payments were capped at $398.97 per month.
Another important point in the negotiations were travel allowances and expenses outside the home. A large proportion of BMWE members travel for work; In addition to compensating for travel expenses, these allowances are an important source of income.
The national deal set basic standards but left specific details to work out carrier by carrier. Those side agreements were not all available at the beginning of the vote, which may have contributed to the no vote. Some members felt they voted “blind”, although by the end of the ratification period, each airline’s ancillary agreement had been released to members.
Rail workers, including BMWE members, organized informational pickets at the base at freight terminals across the country in September, the week after the first strike deadline came and went.
In Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas, North Dakota, Idaho, Oregon and West Virginia, workers stood with handcrafted signs that read “We Demand More” and “We Are Not Done Yet.” It seems they were right.
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