Labor Movement / Trade Unions

Railroad Track Maintenance Workers Reject Proposed National Contract

Nothing Is Settled Until All Railroad Workers Vote

By Marilee Taylor and Geoff Mirelowitz

October 15, 2022 — Members of the third largest U.S. rail union rejected the tentative agreement (TA) for a new national contract. The Biden administration brokered the deal in last-minute talks with railroad management and the 12 unions representing railroad (RR) workers.

Railroad worker welding track. Members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division of Teamsters voted down tentative agreement for national contract brokered by the Biden administration. (Photo: RCP)

The ranks of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (BMWED) said “No” by a vote of 6,646 rejecting ratification and 5,100 approving it. The union represents workers who build and maintain tracks, bridges, buildings, and other structures on U.S. railroads.


International Union President Tony D. Cardwell — who did not recommend the “No” vote — acknowledged, “The membership voted in record numbers on this tentative agreement, exhibiting that they are paying close attention and are engaged in the process.”

Cardwell also recognized that “BMWED members are concerned with the direction of their employers and the mismanagement and greed in which they have consistently implemented and are united in their resolve to improve their working conditions across the entire Class I rail network.”

Matt Mortensen, president of BMWED Local 2303 in the Kansas City area and a worker on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) RR, spoke to World-Outlook.

“We keep being told that this is the best TA we have gotten in forty plus years,” Mortensen said. “This tells me that we have been losing for the past forty plus years and a 24% wage increase, increase in healthcare and no sick days is not going to bridge this gap. We work for a multi-billion-dollar company and just went through a pandemic where they said we were ‘essential workers.’” Now they “turn around and say they don’t care about us.”

Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) train at Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri, on July 8, 2020. “We are the ones that create their wealth,” said BNSF worker Matt Mortensen, who is BMWED Local 2303 president in the Kansas City area. There is no need for any workers “claiming bankruptcy or coming into work sick due to fear of getting in trouble or not getting paid for that day,” he added. (Photo: Jonah Hemingway)

“As for healthcare,” he continued, “again we work for a multi-billion-dollar company and we have guys that are claiming bankruptcy because they don’t make enough to cover our out-of -pocket expense.” He was referring to costs for serious illness or injuries that are not fully covered by what the carriers dub a “platinum” health care plan.

 “We are the ones that create their wealth and there is no need for anyone claiming bankruptcy or coming into work sick due to fear of getting in trouble or not getting paid for that day,” Mortenson said.

The railroads cannot operate without these workers. Track, bridges, and other structures require constant maintenance and repair in order for trains to run safely, or at all.

BMWED members are not alone in paying close attention to the current situation. The big-business press originally reported the tentative agreement likely ended the possibility of a national RR strike. But the BMWED vote, which followed an earlier rejection by nearly 5,000 rail workers affiliated with the International Association of Machinists (IAM), who maintain and repair RR locomotives, makes it clear that is not settled at all.

The members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Sheet Metal Air Rail Transportation Division (SMART-TD) — the unions representing engineers, conductors, brakemen, and switchmen — have not yet voted and may not for several weeks. Discussion is swirling among those workers in rail yards across the country as well as among many RR workers who use social media to communicate with one another.

Still no control over conditions of work or life

Logo of Railroad Workers United from the group’s website.

The top officials of those unions hailed the TA when it was announced. Yet they have been reluctant to openly urge the membership to vote “Yes,” because they are aware of the deep dissatisfaction in the ranks over its terms.

There are many reasons the agreement is unpopular. One fact is key, however: The TA does not resolve the intolerable living and working conditions imposed by the rail carriers’ arbitrary and draconian attendance policies. Those policies make it difficult, if not impossible, for workers to take time off for sickness or other reasonable personal or family needs, without putting their jobs at risk.

An October 13 statement that Railroad Workers United (RWU) issued is titled “Trainmen and Engineers: 10 Reasons to Vote NO.” It explains that the TA:

Ignores workers’ repeated requests to control their own lives by reworking our entire scheduling system in a way that gives the railroads absolute and unchallenged control over our lives and our time. Oppressive attendance policies will remain in place, and workers can still not take time for unplanned situations of sickness and exhaustion. VOTE NO!

Does not allow rail workers to take their lives back. No Paid sick days and severe limitations on the 3 “annual routine preventative medical care visits” are then being touted as a new benefit. Employees are unaware 30 days out whether they will be sick or need to go to the doctor, yet 30-day planning will be required. Days will only be allowed to be taken on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, completely undermining the principle of self- ownership of our lives when sickness arises. VOTE NO!

RWU describes itself as “an inter-union, cross-craft solidarity ‘caucus’ of railroad workers, and their supporters, from all crafts, all carriers, and all unions across North America.”

The full “Vote NO” statement can be read here.

Misinformation in the media

Reflecting the concerns of big business and the government that guards its interests, a Washington Post headline read, “Rail workers union rejects contract, renewing strike threat.” The subhead of the article elaborated, “The deal brokered by the Biden administration included a 24 percent raise and annual bonuses, but some workers say it did not go far enough on sick leave and working conditions.” The paper noted that the BMWED decision, again raised “the possibility of a strike and the profound economic implications that go with it.”

What the Post did not spell out is that the wage increase is to be spread out over 5 years. It will only total 24% at the end of the contract in 2025. And even the highest single yearly increase —7% —does not keep up with the current rate of inflation.

The article also reported — inaccurately — that the TA includes one “paid sick day.” However, this “sick day” requires rail workers to give 30-day notice beforehand. And, as the RWU explained, approval of that request is at the discretion of the carrier.

The Post further claimed that the TA “ensured health-care co-pays and deductibles would not increase.” It did not report that monthly deductions from workers’ paychecks for medical insurance could increase from $228.29 today to $398.97 — a whopping 75% jump.

Railroad worker inspecting track. (Photo: Getty Images)

The BMWED decision, according to the union, “results in a ‘status quo’ period where the BMWED will reengage bargaining with the Class I freight carriers,” which “extend to 5 days after Congress reconvenes, which is currently set for Nov. 14. Assuming Congress returns to session on the 14th there could be no ‘self-help’ until after the 19th.” “Self-help” refers to strike action or a lockout by the carriers.

Workers have little reason to be hopeful that any new bargaining with the carriers will be fruitful. The previous national contract expired at the end of 2019. Negotiations dragged on for almost three years while rail workers’ wages were frozen and working conditions deteriorated. The carriers consistently refused to budge on the issue of establishing workers’ right to take needed time off without facing draconian disciplinary measures.

As World-Outlook explained in a recent news analysis, “If RR workers decide these [contract] proposals are inadequate, they can direct their representatives to attempt to negotiate further, but the chances the carriers will agree to better terms… are slim to none. Ultimately this leaves workers with only one tool, a nationwide strike to win their reasonable demands.”

That decision, like the vote on the TA itself, can only be made by the rank and file. Much of the discussion today revolves around the consequences of rejecting the proposed agreement. Some workers have expressed concern that if the TA is rejected, Congress will try to impose a contract that may be worse, based on previous Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) recommendations. (For more background information on the PEB see “Raiload Workers Will Have Final Word on National Contract.”).

What happens next?

Aware of these concerns the RWU urges RR workers to read its statement titled, “So We Vote Down the TA … Then What?” Among other points it argues:

This vote is not just about this contract and particular circumstances. It is about power and achieving control to win in the long run. We MUST show the carriers, the government, and the union officials that they cannot simply cram this down our throats without resistance. If we capitulate, this will signal that the next round of bargaining can be conducted similarly.

There is no guarantee that we will get something worse if we vote this contract down. There is, in fact, an argument to be made that the basic PEB is not much different than the TA brokered by the government. We can mobilize and fight for a better deal. Vote No!

We need to show the carriers we will not be bullied. If we reject the TA, there is the prospect that resisting the carriers will force them to back down. They may be willing to concede more if they see a strike as imminent. They are on the defensive. We could see a better deal proposed if we vote this one down. Vote NO!

The full statement can be read here.

These are among the issues RR workers are discussing and need to decide. Nothing is settled until that decision is made by the ranks of all 12 unions.

Marilee Taylor retired in February from the BNSF RR as a locomotive engineer and member of the BLET Division 32 in Aurora, Illinois, after more than 28 years of service. Geoff Mirelowitz was a switchman on the BNSF for over 17 years and a member of SMART Local 845 in Seattle.

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