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Railroad strike threat resurfaces, could impact most Metra lines

A Rock Island District train at Joliet station. Photo: Igor Studenkov

The specter of a railroad strike shutting down much of the country’s freight railroad network and some of Metra’s busiest rail lines has risen once again after the members of the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) voted to reject a new union agreement with the five major, Class 1 freight railroads.

For the past three years, 12 labor unions representing workers at major North American railroads have been negotiating contracts. President Joe Biden’s Emergency Labor Board got involved and proposed an agreement. While 10 of them signed it, two labor unions – the aforementioned SMART-TD and  the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET)– held out, complaining about irregular hours, high workload and inflexible leave policies that reportedly prevented some employees from going to medical appointments. The strike was narrowly averted on September 15 after a tentative agreement was reached – but that agreement still had to be approved by the two unions before December 8 deadline.

According to a joint press release issued the two unions, on midnight of November 21, BLET narrowly approved the agreement, while most units that make up SMART-TD voted against. If the two sides don’t reach an agreement by December 8, the strike can begin as soon as December 9.

This comes one week after the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS), international Brotherhood of Boilermakers (IBB) and Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division-International Brotherhood of Teamsters (BMWED) rejected their own union agreement after approving the earlier version back in September.

As Streetsblog Chicago detailed back in September, the strike would shut down Metra BNSF Line and the three Metra Union Pacific lines, since they are operated by freight railroads under contract with Metra. It would not effect that four" “District” lines Metra owns and operates – Metra Electric, Rock Island District and Milwaukee District North and West lines. Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis previously told Streetsblog that they weren’t sure how the strike would affect the three lines where the Metra operates the service but doesn’t own the tracks – SouthWest Service, North Central Service and Heritage Corridor lines. Because the strike was averted relatively quickly last time, Metra had to find out.

Where things stand

The two unions have their roots in representing train engineers, but their membership has long since expanded past that to include conductors, railyard workers, mechanics, railroad maintenance workers and even some railroad police departments. According to their joint statement, they collectively represent about half of all United States railroad workers.

To further complicate the situation, SMART-TD’s yardmasters division (basically, the train yard dispatchers) approved the agreement that’s specific to them. The other contract rejected by the relatively close margin, with 53.5 percent voting in favor and 46.5 percent voting against. A more detailed breakdown on SMART-TD’s website found that rail yard workers voted against, and engineers and locomotive maintenance workers ended up with a tie. The other divisions voted in favor.

The contract currently on the table calls  24 percent pay increase over five years (the contract would take effect retroactively starting January 2020), $5,000 in bonuses, voluntary assigned days off, one additional paid day off, guaranteed time away and medical visits, and no disruptions to current health care plans.

Increased workload has been a point of contention as railroads have been cutting staff – which only got worse during the pandemic. This meant that the workers were on call around the clock, sometimes on short notice. The railroads have also tightened penalties for employees showing up to work late.  The unions ague that, in their zeal, the railroads penalized workers for excusable absences – most notably, for going to medical appointments.

In a statement issued by BMWET on November 21, the lack of paid sick leave was listed as the main sticking point for it and the other theree unions that rejected the agreement.

“It is time for the railroads to improve the quality of life for their workforces,” said BMWED President Cardwell said. “It is time for the railroads to provide paid sick leave to all their employees, not just its executives, management, and office staff.  We remain hopeful the railroads will do the right thing,”

In the joint statement, BLET President Dennis Pierce said that he was satisfied with how the vote turned out.

“Our goal was to get all involved members to cast a ballot — no matter how they voted,” he stated.  “With over two-thirds of eligible BLET members returning a ballot, a true majority of the membership has spoken and I want to thank them all for participating.  Rank and file member ratification of contracts is one of the core democratic principles of our Union.”

SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said that his union was still committed to negotiating with the railroads.

“This can all be settled through negotiations and without a strike,” he said. “A settlement would be in the best interests of the workers, the railroads, shippers and the American people.”

The National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC), which represents all five major, Class 1 railroads (including BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad), insisted that it won’t go beyond what the President’s Emergency Labor Board recommended.

“A national rail strike would severely impact the economy and the public,” it stated. “Even the threat of one will require that freight railroads and passenger carriers soon begin to take responsible steps to safely secure the network in advance of any deadline.”

NCCC described the current contact as including “the largest wage increases in nearly five decades and maintain[ing] employees’ platinum-level healthcare coverage,'”

The contingency plans

I wrote about the potential service alternatives back in September, and I won’t repeat myself too much here. Suffice to say, riders using the four freight railroad-operated lines have some Pace and/or CTA alternatives closer to Chicago, but those options peter out the further one goes. The situation with the three lines those status is ambiguous is even worse.

At the time, Pace recommended that riders take advantage of their highway express buses, mentioning that Union Pacific Northwest riders can take the I-90/James Addams Memorial Tollway express buses, which run between Elgin and the Rosemont Blue Line ‘L’ station, .and  I-55/Stevenson Expressway services as an alternative for riders using BNSF and Heritage Corridor lines. All routes have park-n-ride facilities at their station stops. Pace also recommended using Pace On Demand services. They operate similarly to Dial-a-Ride services, which buses taken riders to destinations within the certain areas, except that their fares our flat and they are available to the general public. While they wouldn’t replace service to Chicago, they could provide last-mile service.

Pace spokesperson Maggie Daly Skogsbakken said at the time that the transit agency was scrambling to figure things out. This time, at least, it will have a bit more a lead time.

The Milwaukee District West line could potentially serve as an alternative for Union Pacific West and BNSF lines, Milwaukee District North line could serve the same purpose for North Central Service and Union Pacific North riders, and RID could provide an alternative for some SouthWest Service and Heritage Corridor riders.

The South Shore Line wouldn’t be affected by the strike because it operates the service and owns the tracks.

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