The SMART Transportation division, the largest railway union under the tentative agreement with more than 37,000 members, said today its members voted down the deal by just under 51%. Meanwhile, the 24,000-member Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which represents engineers, voted in favor of the contract by a margin of 53.5% to 46.5%.
The conductors’ no vote rejects a compromise hammered out in September between labor leaders and railroad companies with the help of the Biden administration. Four unions have now voted down the tentative deal while seven have approved it—though a strike could follow if even one of them walks off the job.
A national rail strike, which could take as early as Dec. 5, could threaten the nation’s coal shipments, its supply of drinking water, and shut down passenger rail.
The U.S. economy could lose $2 billion a day if railroad workers strike, according to the Association of American Railroads. Chicago, as a major hub of rail activity, would most certainly feel the effects, and commuter rail service could also be affected here.
Stoppages at four out of 11 Metra lines connecting Chicago to northern and western suburbs would disrupt some 80,000 trips, or about 60% of passengers, Crain's has reported.
The proposal reached in September with an assist from Labor Secretary Marty Walsh would have raised wages by nearly 25 percent over five years starting retroactively in 2020, when the last contract expired.
But the wage increase doesn’t address the thorniest issue that brought the unions and the rail operators to the bargaining table to begin with: grinding, unpredictable schedules, long stretches of on-call work, and limits on when and how to take time off for vacations or medical care.
While the results don’t necessarily mean there will be a strike, it does put pressure on union leaders to reach a better deal before a cooling-off period expires Dec. 9. It could also motivate Congress to step in to impose a labor agreement against unions’ will—a move that would be politically unpopular for Democrats, but perhaps less so than a supply chain disruption before Christmas.
It was not immediately clear whether the Biden administration would to step in as it did in September, when Walsh brokered a deal through an all-night negotiating session at the Department of Labor headquarters.
SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said in a statement today he believes the dispute can be settled without a strike, even as he lay blame squarely on railroad companies for the escalating standoff.
Freight rail companies urged lawmakers to intervene if a deal can’t be reached.
“Let’s be clear, if the remaining unions do not accept an agreement, Congress should be prepared to act and avoid a disastrous $2 billion a day hit to our economy,” Ian Jeffries, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, said in a statement.