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BMWED Rejects Deal; Strike Not Imminent

Above Photo: BMWED President Tony D. Cardwell said his union would maintain the status quo until at least Nov. 19—five days after the anticipated Nov. 14 return of Congress following mid-term elections. The NCCC said that “in the event of a failed ratification, the parties have agreed to maintain the status quo for a period of time pending any further discussions and assessment of next steps.”

Hardly unexpectedly, but still troubling to railroads and their shippers, members of BMWED voted to reject a tentative contract amending wages, benefits and work rules.

Barely 43% of the almost 12,000 BMWED members casting ballots voted in favor of the agreement, said the union Oct. 10 in announcing the results. A work stoppage is not imminent.

Four of 12 rail labor unions already have ratified tentative agreements with the National Carriers Conference Committee (NCCC), which bargains on behalf of most Class I railroads and many smaller ones. Seven other rail labor unions are currently conducting ratification votes.

All provisions of existing wage, benefits and work rules agreements will remain in force as contracts negotiated under the Railway Labor Act have no expiration date and are changed only by ratified amendments.

A work stoppage by BMWED—or any of the other seven unions that have yet to ratify—is not anticipated before late November, if at all. A work stoppage by any of the rail unions, however, can be expected to cause a nationwide rail shutdown. Carriers also could trigger such a shutdown by locking out the work force—as it did in 1992—if a work stoppage is initiated against just one railroad. There has not a nationwide rail shutdown since.

BMWED President Tony D. Cardwell said his union would maintain the status quo until at least Nov. 19—five days after the anticipated Nov. 14 return of Congress following mid-term elections. The NCCC said that “in the event of a failed ratification, the parties have agreed to maintain the status quo for a period of time pending any further discussions and assessment of next steps.”

That Nov. 19 date mentioned by BMWED may be extended, as voting by the two largest of the rail unions—the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET, also a Teamsters affiliate)—will not be completed before Nov. 17, and votes by members of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) may not be counted before Nov. 20.

Moreover, Nov. 19 is the Saturday before Thanksgiving Day—Thursday, Nov. 24—meaning many House and Senate members may not be in Washington that week to vote on legislation ending a work stoppage. The following weeks are equally problematic, as religious holidays occur in December. Congress then doesn’t return until early January, and it will not be known until after Election Day, Nov. 8, which political party will control the House and/or Senate.

Compounding uncertainty—even chaos should even one senator filibuster and prolong a proposed legislated end to a work stoppage—is that congressional action, if necessary, will occur during a lame-duck session of Congress. Many members who were defeated or are retiring will be negotiating new employment with lobbying and law firms—a Washington “revolving door” tradition. There will be incentive for many to double-down on pro- or anti-labor images, or avoid choosing sides and not vote. In short, lame-duck sessions are the worst of times for such a rail work stoppage to occur.

Equally uncertain is whether railroads will again blink and sweeten their offers to avoid a work stoppage, as they have twice done to gain the tentative agreements such as rejected by BMWED. Rejections by other unions will only increase the precariousness of the status quo.

Following an all-night mid-September bargaining session in the offices of Biden Administration Labor Secretary Marty Walsh involving BLET, SMART-TD and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, the carriers backed off an insistence they would not budge from non-binding recommendations made a month earlier by a Biden-appointed Presidential Emergency Board.

Then, in response to Division 19 of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) rejecting a tentative deal, the carriers again blinked and offered up additional deal sweeteners to gain a second tentative deal with the IAM on Sept. 27 that is pending ratification.

As each tentative agreement contains a “me too” clause, each sweetener offered by carriers to one union is applied, as applicable, to all the others.

BMWED’s Cardwell said his members’ rejection of the tentative contract is over quality-of-life issues rather than wage and benefits boosts—the carriers’ “stubborn reluctance to provide a higher quantity of paid time off, especially for sickness.” There is concern that BLET and SMART-TD members may similarly turn thumbs-down on their tentative deals, expressing displeasure over mandatory attendance policies as well as other quality-of-life issues. It is member quality-of-life issues that made the BMWED rejection unsurprising, and which likely have influenced BLET President Dennis Pierce and SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson not to endorse the tentative deals, even though they negotiated them.

The NCCC, in expressing “disappointment” over the BMWED rejection, said the tentative agreement included “significant increases to the national rules relating to reimbursements for travel and away from home expenses for the roughly 50% of BMWED members employed in traveling roles.”

Each of the current tentative agreements—including the one rejected by BMWED members—provides for a 24% wage increase through 2024 and retroactive to January 2020, $5,000 in lump-sum bonus payments, and a 14.1% retroactive portion of the 24% wage increase payable immediately.

The four unions that have ratified tentative agreements are the American Train Dispatchers Association, Brotherhood of Railroad Carmen, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the Transportation Communications Union.

Ratification votes of the other seven unions are to be counted on or before the following dates:

  • National Conference of Firemen & Oilers, Oct. 13
  • Mechanical Division of SMART, Oct. 14
  • Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, Oct. 26
  • International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Nov. 11
  • BLET and SMART-TD, Nov. 17
  • IAM, Division 19, Nov. 20
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