Members of the third-largest rail union rejected the proposed five-year contract 56 percent to 43 percent, officials said. Both sides have agreed to resume negotiations until at least Nov. 19, and railroads are expected to continue operating normally in the meantime.
President Biden was personally involved in the talks — as were three of his Cabinet secretaries, his top economic adviser and his chief of staff — that led to the deal hammered out last month. He hailed it as a win for both carriers and workers.
But many union members were skeptical from the start, with some telling The Washington Post that the details were opaque. The plan included a 24 percent pay increase by 2024 — bringing the average wage to $110,000 a year — and $1,000 annual bonuses for five years. It also ensured health-care co-pays and deductibles would not increase.
But it seemed to include only one paid sick day, even after union leaders had pushed for 15.
“Railroaders are discouraged and upset with working conditions and compensation and hold their employer in low regard. Railroaders do not feel valued,” BMWED President Tony D. Cardwell said in a statement Monday announcing the vote outcome. “They resent the fact 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.”
The tentative pact stemmed from two years of negotiations between the carriers and unions, and the White House appointed an emergency board in early July to mediate. One of the sticking points was a points-based attendance policy adopted by some of the largest carriers earlier this year. Those policies can penalize workers for missing work for routine doctor’s appointments or family emergencies.
Workers had pushed for more flexibility in this area, and some seemed disappointed when the tentative deal appeared to include only one paid sick day.
The proposed deal was celebrated as a big achievement for Biden, who has pledged to be the “most pro-union president” in U.S. history. On Tuesday, a White House spokeswoman said that Biden remains focused on avoiding a rail shutdown.
“We stand ready to support the parties in their efforts, and continue to urge both sides to finish their work and avoid even the threat of a shutdown in the future,” Robyn Patterson said in an emailed statement to The Post.
A railroad strike would have major implications for shipping and commuter operations across the country, especially leading into the busy holiday shipping season. It could also spawn layoffs and further impair the already struggling supply chain.
The two largest rail unions will soon cast their votes on the proposed agreement. One of them, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, released a notice to members this weekend, seeking to dispel what President Dennis R. Pierce called “misinformation and misrepresentations” spreading about the deal.
“There are groups, many from outside our Union, working overtime pushing outright lies about the tentative agreement, how it was reached, and what the membership should do next,” he wrote.
He urged members to vote, “regardless of how you view the tentative agreement.”
The National Railway Labor Conference, the coalition representing rail carriers, said in a statement that it was “disappointed” by the BMWED vote, but emphasized that a strike would not occur immediately.
A total of 12 unions need to agree to deals with carriers. Four smaller rail unions, including the American Train Dispatchers Association, have done so and a fifth has renegotiated a new tentative agreement, according to the Associated Press.