The threat of a nationwide rail strike is back after members of the third-largest rail union rejected last month’s tentative agreement with the Class I railroads.
Members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance and Way Employees (BMWE) union, which represents workers who build and maintain railroad tracks, voted to oppose the five-year contract, saying the railroads didn’t do enough to address the harsh, unsafe working conditions caused by the sacking of one-third of its workforce over the past six year or the lack of paid time off.
BMWE union president Tony Cardwell said in a statement, “Railroaders are discouraged and upset with working conditions and compensation and hold their employer in low regard. They resent the fact that management holds no regard for their quality of life, illustrated by their stubborn reluctance to provide a higher quantity of paid time off, especially for sickness.”
Under the draconian PSR attendance policies, crew members are forced to work 12-hour days, often with unpredictable schedules, and be on-call 24/7/365. The overworked crews are then disciplined for taking time off work, including sick time, doctor visits, and even for attending a funeral.
Safety issues are also a major concern. With the addition of “monster trains,” the work has only become more challenging and dangerous. Monster trains, which are so long that they don’t fit the tracks designed to allow trains to pass one another, are extremely difficult to control. These monster trains are overseen by a two-person crew, who must walk miles when a problem is discovered, in all kinds of weather conditions. Many industry experts have warned these miles-long trains, hauling chemicals, coals, and other hazardous materials, are likely to break apart or even derail, threatening the safety of not only the crews, but also the communities they transit through. Yet, despite the dangers, the Class I railroads are looking to further their PSR agenda by whittling down onboard crews to just one person through the use of automation, posing even greater challenges and risks.
The BWME said it will now reenter negotiations with the railroads in an effort to reach a new deal. In the event a new deal cannot be reached, BMWE has suggested a possible strike date of November 19.
So far, only four of the 12 unions have approved the deal. One other union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), initially rejected the deal, but has since renegotiated a new deal. IAM members are expected to vote on the new deal in mid-November. Meanwhile, the two largest rail unions – the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, Transportation (SMART) union and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), who represent more than 55,00 engineers and conductors – have yet to ratify the deal. Members of these two unions will be mailed ballots later this month and be given a 21-day voting period. The results are expected to be announced in mid-November.
Even if all the other unions agree to the deal, we expect all 12 of the unions to walk off the job if the BMWE union members go on strike, as a show of solidarity.