Rail unions emphasize positives of their tentative deals

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The two biggest U.S. railroad unions were working Wednesday ahead of key ratification votes to dispel rumors about the contract deals that averted a potentially devastating nationwide strike .

The unions have been fighting rumors on social media that they would impose the deals on workers if they vote to reject them. The rumors were sparked by a railroad trade publication suggesting that was possible in an article earlier this month.

And some newly formed worker groups that helped organize protests at railyards across the country last week have been urging workers, some harboring deep resentment over how they've been treated by the railroads in recent years, to reject the proposed contracts.

“The challenge is to first get past how angry they are,” said Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “The education process we’re working through now is to try to get concentrating on the facts of the deal instead of the emotions of what they’ve been through. And that’s a heavy lift.”

He added that there are some “out there from the outside and inside with their own agendas that are trying to keep everyone agitated.”

The BLET and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers unions are instead emphasizing to their members the potential benefits of the five-year deals, which include 24% raises and $5,000 in bonuses. Union leaders are stressing that the only way a contract will be imposed on members is if Congress steps in to block a strike because so many businesses rely on railroads to deliver their raw materials and finished products.

Workers were ready to strike until the Biden administration helped broker a last-minute deal that prevented a mid-September walkout at Union Pacific, BNSF, Norfolk Southern, CSX, Kansas City Southern and other railroads. But now all the unions, which represent a total of 115,000 workers, must ratify their deals over the next six weeks to ensure there won't be a strike. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers voted Wednesday to join two smaller rail unions as the only ones to approve their deals so far.

The financial terms of these deals closely follow the recommendations a special board of arbitrators Biden appointed made this summer, but that board didn't resolve all of the worker concerns about schedules and workloads after the major railroads eliminated nearly one third of their workforces over the past six years.

Conductors and engineers have been especially upset about quality-of-life issues because they say the strict attendance policies railroads imposed to make sure they have enough crews make it hard to take any time off and keep them on call 24-7.

The president of the SMART-TD union, Jeremy Ferguson, acknowledged in a video he sent out to his members that this deal “did not abolish the whole attendance policy like we asked” but he said it does include some key gains.

The concessions the unions got include three unpaid leave days a year for medical appointments, although those must be scheduled 30 days ahead of time on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays. The railroads also promised not to dock workers when they are hospitalized and said they would negotiate at each railroad about ensuring workers have regularly scheduled days off.

Pierce said the unions focused on time off for medical needs because that seemed to be where the greatest harm was being done. In one case highlighted by the Washington Post, a BNSF engineer who skipped a doctor's appointment earlier this year because he was worried about being penalized under that railroad's attendance policy died on a train a few weeks later after suffering a heart attack.

Ferguson also emphasized that the unions were able to protect two-person crews by preventing the railroads from forcing them into arbitration over their proposals to cut train crews down to one person. Unions have vehemently opposed that idea for years because of concerns about safety and protecting jobs.

Josh Funk, The Associated Press