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The Rail Deal Now

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CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – SEPTEMBER 13: Workers service the tracks at the Metra/BNSF railroad yard outside of downtown on September 13, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. Metra, the largest rail service carrying commuters from the suburbs to downtown Chicago, said that it would be forced to suspend service on many of its lines if freight rail workers go on strike. In addition to the Metra disruptions in Chicago, Amtrak announced that it will temporarily cancel three of its long-distance, nationwide routes that run out of Chicago and rely on freight lines, citing a potential strike by the workers. Beginning Tuesday, the Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles, the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco and the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle will be suspended. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

While we’ve been rightfully lauding the Biden administration for its role in forcing the rail companies to give more concessions on its ridiculous anti-sick leave positions and forestalling the planned rail strike, it’s not actually clear whether the workers themselves will vote to ratify the agreement. I do think that they will because the pressure coming from union leadership is going to be significant. But it’s no guarantee and we should be aware of that. Josh Eidelson on what comes next.

“There’s obviously no guarantees,” said Wilma Liebman, a former deputy director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and former chair of the National Labor Relations Board. Union members are likely to weigh the viability of pulling off a successful strike and the political impact it could have before the midterm elections, as well as how much the tentative deal does to address their core concerns, she said. “It depends on the degree of commitment, and the anger,” Liebman said. “It depends on how close this gets to addressing what they felt they needed and what motivated the underlying dispute in the first place.”

As part of the agreement, the cooling-off period in which work stoppages are prohibited has been extended to last several weeks past when workers vote to accept or reject its terms, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. A timeline for those votes has not been released.

One member of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers said the feedback they’d been hearing from fellow members was overall negative and skeptical. Another person familiar with the talks described the deal as not over by a long shot.

Still, union leaders have joined the White House and industry officials in hailing the deal, which followed 20 consecutive hours of negotiations. The presidents of SMART’s Transportation Division and of the Teamsters’ Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the two major unions that had initially held off for a better deal, released a statement on Thursday praising the tentative agreement. “We listened when our members told us that a final agreement would require improvements to our members’ quality of life as well as economic gains,” the two union presidents said in a joint statement. They said the pact includes a 24% pay increase over the five-year term of the agreement, prevents increases in insurance copays and deductibles, and loosens attendance policies to exempt certain medical situations.

With SMART and the Locomotive Engineers definitely on board, I don’t think the two smaller unions can hold out against the agreement, even if they want to. But again, it’s just hard to say what will actually happen. The real question I’d have is whether a strike would actually lead to a better deal and the way I am reading this is that there’s so much anger that some of the workers just want to strike for that reason. Understandable. But in terms of strategy, this is probably as good of a deal as the unions are going to get this time around.

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