Deal averting railroad strike has potential to fall apart | The Hill

The White House-brokered agreement to avert a railroad strike has the potential to fall apart, threatening widespread economic disruption right before the midterm elections.

Rail workers are set to vote on the tentative deal reached between unions and railroads Thursday morning. If any of the 12 rail unions fail to ratify a new contract, nearly 125,000 rail workers could be headed for a strike.

The agreement would mandate two-person crews, cap health care costs and allow workers to take time off for medical appointments or other scheduled events without being penalized, all key concessions won by unions.

The deal also provides 24 percent raises over five years, back pay and cash bonuses, similar terms to those offered by the White House-appointed presidential emergency board (PEB) last month.

But nearly 36 hours after the agreement was announced, rail workers said they still didn’t have concrete details on sick leave and voluntarily assigned days off. That’s raised some doubts about just how strong the new contract language is.

Ron Kaminkow, an organizer at Railroad Workers United, which represents rank-and-file railroaders, said that there’s “a lot of anger, confusion and hostility” toward the new agreement, which many workers feel is intentionally vague.

“Workers are pissed off and this time we actually have a lot of leverage,” said a locomotive engineer at Norfolk Southern who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “I know I’m not going to accept anything less than what we deserve.”

The two largest rail unions warned during negotiations that their members wouldn’t approve a contract that doesn’t quell outrage over unpredictable scheduling, unsafe working conditions and a lack of sick leave.

For the strike threat to end, workers would need to feel that the proposed contract is far stronger than the deal offered by the PEB. A survey of rail workers at the SMART Transportation Division found that nearly 8 in 10 would have voted to reject that contract.

Another dilemma is that the tentative agreement reached Thursday only applies to SMART and the Brotherhood Of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the two largest rail unions, but not the other unions that agreed to contracts based on the less worker-friendly PEB guidance.

Those include nearly 5,000 rail workers at the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers who voted to reject the PEB contract and authorize a strike last week. The union said it would resume negotiations this week and hold off on a strike until at least Sept. 29. 

Vote counting is certain to drag into October, potentially setting up a key deadline at the height of election season.

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