Railroad Track Workers Have Rejected Their Proposed Contract

After a tentative agreement between railroad companies and unions was reached earlier this year, political leaders acted like the deal was settled. But thousands of rail workers just voted it down — which could put a national railroad strike back on the table.

Rail workers service the tracks at the Metra/BNSF railroad yard outside of downtown Chicago on September 13, 2022. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE), who build and maintain tracks and bridges, have voted down a national tentative agreement with the freight rail carriers.

Just under 12,000 of the union’s 23,900 freight rail workers voted, the union announced October 10, with 56 percent voting against the deal. Leaders said they’re hoping to return to the bargaining table. The union is delaying any potential strike until November 19 at the earliest.

In a statement, BMWE president Tony Cardwell attributed the rejection to members’ feeling 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.”

Railroad workers currently get no paid sick days. The Teamsters-affiliated BMWE, part of a bargaining coalition with the Sheet Metal Workers’ Mechanical Division, had pushed for thirteen sick days annually, but the carriers refused to budge.

BMWE Rank and File United, a caucus in the union, released a statement encouraging members to organize informational pickets and push for a stronger agreement. “We must stand together in showing the carriers, politicians, and the world that we are not done. Our demands have not been met,” read the statement.

“Our union leadership only has power at the bargaining table if we give it to them.”

It’s Not Over

The rejection marks a major turnaround — political leaders were acting like the deal was sealed.

On September 15, just twenty hours before a national strike deadline, Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh had announced a tentative agreement between the National Carriers’ Conference Committee and the two largest rail unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Sheet Metal Workers’ Transportation Division (SMART-TD).

As Politico reported, Walsh said, “It’s like, Holy Christ: The magnitude of what would have happened. We’ll never fully understand, thank God.”

Of the dozen unions that are part of the negotiations, four (the railroad electricians [IBEW], the train dispatchers [ATDA], and the Transportation Communications Union representing clerical workers and the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen representing workers who inspect and maintain train cars, both affiliated to the Machinists) have ratified agreements.

Members of Machinists District Lodge 19 voted last month to reject their deal. The union has since announced a new tentative agreement. One local lodge leader, Reece Murtagh, wrote a scathing letter to the national leadership for its handling of the strike vote.

BLET and SMART-TD members begin voting this week. Together these two unions, which represent conductors and engineers, make up half of the 115,000 union members at the Class I freight railroads.

Could the news out of the BMWE impact these votes? Jack, a SMART-TD member out of Illinois who asked not to use his last name, thinks that “seeing another union take a stand will show everyone it’s possible to fight back.” But he says members are still nervous about Congressional intervention leading to a worse deal.

Grueling Conditions

Pushing back any possible strike until after November’s midterm elections eases the pressure on politicians. A Congressional intervention in November would still be by a Democratic-controlled Congress, even if Republicans win majorities in the House or Senate, since newly elected Senators and Representatives don’t take office until January.

The no vote partly reflects pent-up anger over the increasingly grueling conditions on the job. As the rail employers have embraced Precision Scheduled Railroading, they’ve slashed the workforce, increasing the workload and hours of the workers who remain.

According to the Surface Transportation Board, the freight railroads have shed more than 20 percent of their maintenance-of-way jobs in the past six years, and more than fifty thousand rail jobs in total since the year 2000.

“I’m not surprised,” said Deven Mantz of BMWE Lodge 1326 in Minot, North Dakota, when he learned the contract had been voted down. “People are pissed off, and they want somewhere to direct it. If we’re not careful, they’re going to direct it at our union. So our union leadership needs to step up and direct that anger at the carriers, who caused it.”

Sick Time and Health Care

The two major issues addressed in the September 15 deal brokered by the White House between the railroads and the BLET and SMART-TD were health care costs and time off for medical appointments.

Press reports made it sound like the deal would create three sick days for railroad workers. But once the actual language came out, what was created turned out to be something less than sick time: heavily circumscribed, unpaid time off for routine or preventative medical appointments, on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday with at least thirty days notice, plus no attendance penalties for hospitalization or surgery.

The two unions held a fifteen-day “question and answer” period before sending the tentative agreement for a contract vote. Many members were immediately upset with the terms; Ross Grooters, a BLET member in Iowa and activist with the rank-and-file group Railroad Workers United, tweeted, “I don’t need questions answered. I need for all of us to VOTE NO!”

The BMWE, the third-largest rail union, was not subject to these agreements, since the union had already reached its own tentative agreement with the carriers on September 10. But members were following them closely as they waited to vote on their own deal.

Voting by mail started September 20. The union held multiple Zoom calls across different carriers to answer questions, and put together a Q&A document addressing wages, bonuses, and time off.

The BMWE’s tentative agreement largely tracked with recommendations made by a Presidential Emergency Board in August, including 22 percent wage increases over the life of the agreement (extending retroactively to 2020 and running through December 31, 2024), and adding one additional paid day off per year — but no sick time.

The deal included an annual $1,000 bonus for each of the five years, and capped workers’ monthly health care premium payments to $398.97 per month.

Another major issue in negotiations was travel allowances and away-from-home expenses. A large proportion of BMWE members travel for work; beyond offsetting travel costs, these allowances are an important source of income.

The national deal set basic standards, but left specific details to be worked out carrier by carrier. Those side agreements weren’t all available at the start of voting, which may have contributed to the no vote. Some members felt they were voting “blind,” though by the end of the ratification period each carrier’s side deal had been released to the membership.

Info Pickets

Rail workers, including BMWE members, organized grassroots informational pickets in September at freight terminals across the country the week after the first strike deadline came and went.

In Chicago, St Louis, Kansas, North Dakota, Idaho, Oregon, and West Virginia, workers stood with handmade signs that read “We Demand More” and “We Are Not Done Yet.” It looks like they were right.