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President Joe Biden meets with rail union and company negotiators

President Joe Biden meets with the negotiators of a new tentative railway labor agreement in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. on September 15, 2022. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Rail Unions Stress Tentative Deal Must Still Win Approval From Rank-and-File

Early reactions suggest some rail workers are furious at the agreement, with one anonymous employee calling it "garbage" that "everyone hates" thus far.

Jake Johnson

Two unions representing 125,000 active and retired rail employees stressed Thursday that the tentative agreement they reached with freight carriers to avert a strike still must win approval from rank-and-file members, a reminder that came as the White House hailed the deal it helped broker as a victory for workers and the economy.

"This contract will not become final until our members have an opportunity to review its terms and approve it through a ratification vote," said Jeremy Ferguson, president of SMART Transportation Division, and Dennis Pierce, head of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET).

"It's a garbage deal. Everyone hates it so far. It does nothing for me. I'll vote no. This has been a complete waste of time."

BLET and SMART-TD represent roughly half of the railroad workers that would be covered by the new agreement.

The unions, which had been preparing to strike as soon as Friday as rail giants refused to budge on workers' basic sick leave demands, said the tentative deal includes "an immediate wage increase of 14% once compounded with an additional 4% on July 1, 2023, and 4.5% on July 1, 2024."

"In addition, wage increases of 3% effective July 1, 2020, 3.5% effective July 1, 2021, and 7% effective July 1, 2022, will be fully retroactive, for a compounded increase of 24% over the 5-year term of the agreement," Ferguson and Pierce said. "The agreement also includes annual lump-sum bonus payments totaling $5,000."

Additionally, they noted, the agreement includes provisions that "will create voluntary assigned days off for members working in thru freight service, and all members will receive one additional paid day off."

"Most importantly, for the first time ever, the agreement provides our members with the ability to take time away from work to attend to routine and preventive medical care, as well as exemptions from attendance policies for hospitalizations and surgical procedures," Ferguson and Pierce added, pointing to a central demand of rail workers who for years have been laboring under a scheduling system that punishes employees for taking time off to see the doctor.

The union leaders said they also succeeded in fighting off rail carriers' efforts to impose higher healthcare costs and other damaging provisions.

Overall, the union leaders said they secured a deal that "exceeded the recommendations of the Presidential Emergency Board," a body formed by President Joe Biden that suggested a compromise agreement that excluded any sick leave—angering workers and heightening the likelihood of a national strike.

A recent SMART-TD survey of its members showed that 78% opposed the emergency board's recommended agreement.

Now the key question is whether the tentative deal announced Thursday is enough of an improvement over the presidential board's proposal to win approval from the rank-and-file.

Early reactions suggest that some union members are furious with the newly released agreement and plan to oppose its ratification. The Washington Post's Lauren Kaori Gurley observed that responses from rail workers have been a mixture of "optimism and deep skepticism."

One unnamed rail worker bluntly told Jonah Furman of Labor Notes that "it's a garbage deal."

"Everyone hates it so far," the worker added. "It does nothing for me. I'll vote no. This has been a complete waste of time."

Furman also pointed to social media posts indicating worker opposition to the deal and continued support for a national rail strike:

In a speech outside the White House on Thursday, Biden touted the tentative agreement as a "great deal for both sides" that "will keep our critical rail system working."

Following the president's remarks, a reporter shouted out, "Mr. President, is it premature to celebrate before the unions vote?"

Biden didn't respond.

NBC News reported Thursday that "as part of the agreement reached last night, there will be a 'cooling off' period of several weeks to ensure that if a vote doesn't succeed for any reason, there still would not be an immediate rail shutdown."

During the coronavirus pandemic, major U.S. railroads have raked in record profits on the backs of their employees, who have been working without a contract for three years due to management's refusal to offer even minimal sick leave benefits.

On Wednesday, Republican senators attempted to pass legislation that would have forced rail workers to accept the woefully inadequate proposal put forth by the Presidential Emergency Board. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) blocked the bill.

"Last year, the CEO of CSX made over $20 million in total compensation, while the CEOs of Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern made over $14 million each in total compensation," Sanders said in a speech on the Senate floor. "In other words, within the rail industry corporate profits are soaring and the CEOs are making incredibly large compensation packages."

"I would also add that the parent company of BNSF, one of the largest freight rail companies in America, is Berkshire Hathaway owned by Warren Buffett," the senator continued. "Mr. Buffett is the fourth wealthiest man in America worth nearly $100 billion. During the pandemic, as rail workers risked their lives to keep the economy going, Mr. Buffett became $33 billion richer."

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