By Nicole Pollack
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CASPER — Members of a major railroad union voted to reject a tentative contract deal, union leaders announced Monday, renewing the possibility of a strike that could shut down the country’s railroads — and several key Wyoming industries — early next month.
The deal resulted from last-minute negotiations convened by the Biden administration in mid-September, when tens of thousands of unionized rail workers were readying to strike over working conditions. The agreement added a pay raise, an extra day off, protected benefits and guaranteed leave for medical care (with restrictions) to the contract in an effort to mollify workers frustrated by long hours, unpredictable scheduling and punitive time off policies.
And it came as a relief to state officials and the bedrock Wyoming industries that rely most on rail: coal, trona and agriculture.
“I don’t want to say anything until the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed, but we’re pleased that they’ve come to a tentative solution,” Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, told the Star-Tribune at the time.
If the railroads can’t move that coal, Wyoming’s mines could be forced to scale back production or even shut down until rail service resumes.
It’s unclear how mine workers will be affected if a strike occurs.
The agreement proved unsatisfactory to a slim majority — 50.9% — of workers represented by the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.
About 62.5% of yardmasters represented by the same union voted to accept it, as did 53.5% workers in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.
Three smaller rail unions have also voted against the contract.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the eight other rail unions that previously approved it don’t plan to cross the picket lines if any union chooses to strike.
A strike could begin as soon as Dec. 5.
Rail workers’ previous contract expired without a replacement as the parties struggled to compromise on key issues like pay, downtime and medical coverage.
Holding a vote is “right by the members, because it’s a democracy, and everyone who turned in a ballot gets to vote,” said Stan Blake, a former state lawmaker and retired conductor for the Union Pacific Railroad who is no longer working for the company or involved in union decisions.
“I think the everyday person out there has no idea what the railroaders’ — what their fatigue issues are,” Blake added. “They have no clue.”
If the unions do strike, Congress could force members back to work and impose a contract on their behalf in order to mitigate billions of dollars in daily losses.
The worry, for the unions, is that the contract Congress chooses could be less desirable than the version currently on the table.
Union Pacific, a major Western rail company, said in an emailed statement that the railroads “remain willing to enter into agreements” in accordance with negotiation standards set by the Biden administration. It hopes — as do both of Wyoming’s U.S. senators and Gov. Mark Gordon — that the federal government will intervene if the unions and railroads are unable to reach an agreement in time.
“I have been sounding the alarm on this issue for several months now and working on potential solutions,” Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., said in an emailed statement. “We rely on railroads to ship nearly 100% of the trona and coal we produce in Wyoming, and nearly all the commodities produced by our agricultural industry. That does not begin to cover all the goods we bring into our state via railroads. A strike would be devastating to the Wyoming economy.”
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., echoed Lummis in a separate statement and called on President Joe Biden to step in and prevent the cost of household goods from rising further ahead of the holidays.
“We must keep our economy moving,” Barrasso said.
Blake hopes the remaining unions will reach an agreement with the railroads before the matter reaches Congress.
“It’s in everybody’s best interest, and it’s in the best interest of America, that they settle,” he said. “But I’m all behind the right to a fair contract, and the contract could have been better than it was.”