U.S. rail strike averted

Tentative agreement reached following marathon negotiations

Managing Editor

Following a marathon 20-hour negotiating session and nearly three years of bargaining, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), a Division of the Rail Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD), averted a strike and reached a Tentative National Agreement Sept. 15 with the nation’s largest freight rail carriers that includes wage increases and bonuses, with no increases to insurance copays and deductibles.

President Joe Biden, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and other White House officials interceded to broker a deal to avoid transport disruptions that could have snarled supply chains, putting new pressure on prices when inflation has been hovering near four-decade highs. Business groups and key rail customers, such as energy companies and national retailers, had been calling on the government to avert a strike.

In a joint statement Jeremy Ferguson, president of SMART Transportation Division and Dennis Pierce, president of Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said: “For the first time, our unions were able to obtain negotiated contract language exempting time off for certain medical events from carrier attendance policies. Our unions will now begin the process of submitting the tentative agreement to a vote by the memberships of both unions.”

The tentative agreement calls for

  • An immediate wage increase of 14 percent once compounded, with an additional four percent on July 1, 2023, and 4.5 percent on July 1, 2024.
  • Fully retroactive wage increases of three percent effective July 1, 2020, 3.5 percent effective July 1, 2021, and seven percent effective July 1, 2022, to be fully retroactive, for a compounded increase of 24 percent over the five-year term of the agreement.
  • Annual lump sum bonus payments totaling $5,000.
  • Health and Welfare Plan Point of Service (POS) costs will remain unchanged; there will be no increases to copays and deductibles and there are no disruptions to the existing healthcare networks.

Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, hailed the agreement as a step toward putting an end to corporate greed at the expense of workers’ livelihoods.

“Railroading is a demanding, tireless career. It’s also essential to the day-to-day operations of our country,” Shuler said. “Freight rail workers deserve dignity, respect and quality of life. It’s time to put an end to the corporate greed that has come at the expense of workers’ livelihoods for too long.”

“The solidarity shown by our members, essential workers to this economy, who keep America’s freight trains moving, made the difference in our obtaining an agreement with provisions that exceeded the recommendations of the Presidential Emergency Board,” Ferguson and Pierce said.

“We listened when our members told us that a final agreement would require improvements to our members’ quality of life as well as economic gains. As a result, this agreement includes provisions that will create voluntary assigned days off for members working through 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 routine and preventative medical needs as well as exemptions from attendance policies for hospitalizations and surgical procedures.”

The tentative agreement provides for the highest general wage increases over the life of the agreement in over 45 years.

SMART-TD was successful in blocking the carriers’ attempts to fast-track arbitration on Crew Consist agreements, protecting two-person crews for the indefinite future. The carriers’ demands for increases in Point of Service health care costs were blocked, along with their demands to charge married employees with children more for their monthly health care contributions.

Retroactive application of general wage increases and performance bonuses will provide members with checks for meaningful back pay in the coming weeks.

“The agreement would not have been reached at this time without the hard work of President Biden, Labor Secretary Walsh, Deputy Labor Secretary Su and others in the administration, as well as the members of the National Mediation Board,” Ferguson and Pierce said. “We also would like to thank Congressional leaders, including Senators Schumer, Durbin, and Sanders, and Speaker Pelosi, who listened to our requests and stayed out of our dispute, allowing for an agreement to be reached across the bargaining table, rather than through legislation.”

The new leaders of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, General President Sean M. O’Brien and General Secretary-Treasurer Fred Zuckerman, along with SMART Union General President Joseph Sellers, Jr., played a critical role in helping get the tentative agreement cross the finish line.

This contract will not become final until members have an opportunity to review its terms and approve it through a ratification vote.

Combined, the BLET and SMART-TD represent approximately 125,000 active and retired rail employees. Approximately half of the membership is employed at Class I railroads that are party to this agreement.


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