PENNSYLVANIA — A major railroad union representing workers in Pennsylvania and across the country may go on strike after rejecting a proposed employment contract it said did not address exploitative working conditions, underpaid sick leave, unrealistic hours and overall quality of life other problems.
The SMART-TD union, which represents some 28,000 rail managers nationwide, voted by a majority of 50.87 percent against the deal brokered by US Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh with freight executives. Another large department, representing around 24,000 freight train engineers, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen voted yes. But the Brotherhood said they would not cross the picket lines and would support the conductors in their dissent.
“It’s unbelievable that railroad workers in America will be guaranteed zero paid sick leave in 2022,” US Senator Bernie Sanders said Monday. “Zero. The rail industry, which made a record $20 billion in profits last year, needs to come together and negotiate a contract that treats its workers with respect.”
The unions went on to argue that the pandemic has exposed how their workers – many of whom have risked their health by staying on the frontlines of the coronavirus for months – are long overdue for an update to their paid sick pay benefits. The proposed deal by the country’s railroad giants, including Union Pacific, CSX, Norfolk Southern, BNSF and Kansas City Southern, allowed just three days a year to “attend to medical needs” and required them to give 30 days’ notice were planned.
“A lot of these things … can’t be seen but can be felt by our members,” Jared Cassity, the national legislative director at SMART Transportation and Schaffner, told the Washington Post. “It destroys their livelihood.”
SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson, who has been heavily criticized by the union’s grass roots as a “union bureaucrat” who sides with the railroads, has threatened that the US Congress itself has the legal power to end a strike . He said this week the dispute could be resolved without a halt to work.
“SMART-TD members have spoken with their voices, it’s now back to the negotiating table for our factory tradesmen…A settlement would be in the best interests of workers, the railroads, shippers and the American people,” he said in a statement that later adding, “Everybody’s ready to get it done.”
“Except for most #RailLab‘ Railroad Workers United, which represents the union’s grassroots, responded to the quote on social media.
Both SEPTA and New Jersey Transit said they would not be significantly affected by a strike because the majority of their tracks do not carry freight, Politico first reported. Amtrak lines throughout most of the Northeast would also not be affected, although commuter lines across much of the rest of the country could experience major delays.
In western Pennsylvania, rail lines such as the Allegheny Valley, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh Railroads rely on Norfolk Southern and CSX rails. These lines would be affected.
The railroad’s refusal to offer more sick leave and benefits comes as the nation sees historic rates of inflation sending rents and the cost of living soaring. Meanwhile, companies in every industry and across the country have largely refused to pay inflation-adjusted wages.
The railroads, meanwhile, claim they have refused to offer paid sick leave because the panel led by Labor Secretary Walsh did not recommend it. They also said unions had agreed in the past to forgo paid sick leave in favor of higher wages.
According to a report released earlier this year by the Association of American Railroads, an industrial trade group, a strike would halt the transportation of food and fuel at a cost of $2 billion a day. Supply chain issues are easing but would likely be re-entangled by a strike, according to the report.
The railroads also lost their offer to reduce crew size to one person as part of the negotiations.