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Freight rail union rejects contract, increasing the possibility of a strike

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

It's probably not the news the White House and a lot of folks were hoping for right before the holidays - the largest freight rail union has voted to reject a five-year contract deal. That's the deal the Biden administration pulled together back in September. It gave workers a 24% raise over five years and some quality-of-life improvements. President Biden, himself, had called it a win for all sides and for the U.S. economy, but it turns out that may have been premature.

NPR's Andrea Hsu is here with more. Hi, Andrea.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Hi.

SUMMERS: So catch us up, if you can. Who are the workers who rejected this deal? And what does this no vote mean?

HSU: Well, this union is called the Smart Transportation Division. They represent around 28,000 train conductors and brakemen and others who work in the rail yards. Just over half of them voted no. It was a very, very close vote. They were one of the two unions that came to Washington back in September for those marathon negotiations with the labor secretary, Marty Walsh. And most people thought, at the time, that they'd hammered out a deal with the rank and - that the rank and file would accept, but it turns out they were wrong. So now, it's back to the bargaining table. And actually, there are three other rail unions in the same boat who also voted down this contract.

SUMMERS: OK. So then, how close are we to a strike?

HSU: Well, if any of these four unions fails to reach a deal by December 8, workers could strike the next day, on December 9. That's in 2 1/2 weeks. And I should say the railroads could also lock workers out starting then. But, you know, eight other rail unions have approved the deal. But the way it works, if one union strikes, all of the others honor the picket lines. And if that happened, trains would come to a halt around the country. And one, it's not just freight trains but Amtrak trains and commuter rail systems that use the tracks owned by the freight railroads.

SUMMERS: OK. As a train commuter, I'm thinking about this, and this is coming right before the holidays. And it sounds like a recipe for disaster.

HSU: Well, it would really be disastrous anytime, actually, because the supply chain is already so fragile. And think about all the stuff that's shipped by rail in this country, everything from chlorine for water treatment plants to the flour that goes into bread. You know, agribusiness, manufacturing, retail, they all rely on rail to move their goods. And last month, every industry group you can think of, from the American Bakers Association to the Pet Food Institute to the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association, they sent this joint letter to President Biden, urging him to continue to work with both sides to get the deal ratified.

SUMMERS: OK. So what else can the White House do here?

HSU: Well, not a whole lot at this point. Today, the White House said the best option is still for the parties to resolve this themselves. But if there's no agreement by law, Congress can intervene to stop a strike, and there's some expectation that they will. And Congress could do any number of things. They could impose the contract that the unions voted down. They can impose an earlier version of the agreement. Or they could extend the negotiations and leave it for the next Congress to deal with.

SUMMERS: Andrea, tell us, if you can, what is the sticking point for these workers who voted no?

HSU: Well, a lot of them will say it came down to quality-of-life issues. One thing to understand about rail workers is that some of them have really unpredictable schedules. They're on call, basically, all the time. And then rail workers, more broadly, don't get paid sick days, the kind that you can use if you wake up with the flu or you have a sick kid at home. And on top of that, some of the railroads have really strict attendance policies. So if you miss too much work because you're sick, you can get in trouble. So the workers were hoping to get paid sick days as part of this deal, and they didn't get any. They did get some modest changes to the attendance policies. But at this point, many are just really mad at the railroads. The railroads have dramatically cut the workforce in recent years, so it's more work with fewer people. And meanwhile, the railroads have seen record profits. So some of the workers I've talked to actually say they want to see a strike. They think it'll send a strong message to the railroads and to the country.

SUMMERS: NPR's Andrea Hsu, thank you.

HSU: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Andrea Hsu
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.