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Major rail union rejects deal brokered by Biden, threatening a strike before the holidays – USA TODAY

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  • 51% of SMART Transportation Division’s members, representing conductors, rejected the deal.
  • SMART-TD can go on strike, or rail companies can lock out workers, beginning Dec. 9.
  • Three other unions out of 12 involved in negotiations had already rejected the deal.

WASHINGTON — A union representing rail conductors narrowly voted to reject a collective bargaining agreement orchestrated by the Biden administration, moving one step closer to a freight rail strike that appeared averted two months ago

SMART Transportation Division, representing about 28,000 conductors, rejected the deal early Monday, while a separate union representing rail engineers –the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen – voted to ratify the five-year agreement. 

The split among the two largest rail unions comes after three smaller unions already rejected the agreement with rail companies that was brokered by the White House in September. Eight freight rail unions have now approved the agreement, but all 12 must sign on for ratification. 

“It’s now back to the bargaining table for our operating craft members,” said Jeremy Ferguson, president of SMART-TD, adding that he believes issues can be resolved without a strike. “The ball is now in the railroads’ court. Let’s see what they do.”

Tick tock: Pressure mounts on Biden to avert freight rail strike as union deadline looms

A status quo contract is in place until Dec. 8. SMART-TD can go on strike, or rail companies can lock out workers, beginning Dec. 9 if an agreement is not reached. Congress has the power to intervene to set a contract if parties don’t reach a deal.

A rail strike or lockout in December could paralyze the economy by halting the shipment of many foods and other critical goods before the holiday season.

“Let’s be clear, if the remaining unions do not accept an agreement, Congress should be prepared to act and avoid a disastrous $2 billion a day hit to our economy, said Ian Jefferies, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, which represents the nation’s largest freight companies. 

A possible strike?: Second railroad union rejects deal, adding to strike worries

What is the railroad strike of 2022?: Why rail workers are striking and what it means for you

A White House official reiterated the president’s position that a rail shutdown is “unacceptable because of the harm it would inflict on jobs, families, farms, businesses and communities across the country.”

The official said “the best option is still for the parties to resolve this themselves.”

President Joe Biden has not intervened in the dispute since September, when his administration helped reach a tentative agreement to resolve a three-year stalemate between the rail unions and companies. 

The proposed contract includes a 24% pay increase over five years, voluntary assigned days off, one additional paid day off, guaranteed time away and medical visits and no disruptions to current health care plans. But despite winning the endorsements of the unions’ leaders, their members must vote to approve the deal for it to become final.

The rail conductors’ vote Monday was razor close, with 51% of union members voting to reject the deal. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which has about 57,000 members, voted 53.5%-46.5% to approve the agreement.

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

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