US railroad union splits on labour contract, raises fear of strike

Al Greenwood


HOUSTON (ICIS)–The railroad conductors in one of the largest train unions in the US voted to reject a labour contract, while the yardmasters in the same union approved it, the group said on Monday.

The Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) will return to bargaining, said Jeremy Ferguson, president.

SMART-TD and the railroads have a status quo agreement that remains in effect until 8 December, the union said. On 9 December, SMART-TD could go on strike and the railroad companies can lock out the workers.

The US Congress can intervene to prevent any disruptions.

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

He added, “The ball is now in the railroads’ court. Let’s see what they do. They can settle this at the bargaining table.”

The American Association of Railroads (AAR) is ready to reach new deals with SMART-TD and the other unions that have not approved a new labour agreement, said Ian Jefferies, president of the trade group that represents the nation’s railroad companies.

“Let’s be clear, if the remaining unions do not accept an agreement, Congress should be prepared to act and avoid a disastrous $2bn a day hit to our economy,” Jefferies said.

So far, eight unions have approved a new labour agreement.

The latest was the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET). It and SMART-TD are the largest rail unions in the US, accounting for half of the organised labour on the nation’s largest freight railroads.

Three other railroad unions have yet to approve a new labour contract. Those unions are as follows:

If a strike is called by SMART-TD or any of the other three rail unions that rejected the contracts, then the other unions that ratified the agreements have pledged to honour their picket lines.

The following shows the votes among the unions.

Union Vote
American Train Dispatchers Association (ATDA) Ratified 4 Oct
Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) Ratified 20 Nov
Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS) REJECTED 26 Oct
International Association of Machinists (IAM) Ratified 5 Nov
International Brotherhood of Boilermakers (IBB) REJECTED 14 Nov
National Conference of Firemen & Oilers (NCFO) Ratified 13 Oct
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Ratified 28 Sept
Transport Workers Union of America (TWU) Ratified*
Transportation Communications Union/IAM (TCU) Ratified 26 Oct
SMART-TD SPLIT decision 20 November
Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED) REJECTED 10 Oct
SMART Mechanical Ratified 12 Oct

*Ratification implied by statements from AAR, BLET and SMART-TD

The National Retail Federation (NRF) has called on Congress to intervene to prevent a rail strike.

“Millions of hardworking Americans rely on the freight rail system for their jobs and the economic security of our country,” said Matthew Shay, president of the group. “A nationwide rail strike during the peak holiday season will be devastating for American businesses, consumers and the US economy.”

Earlier in November, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) estimated that a strike as short as one month would severely disrupt the country, leading to 700,000 job losses and a 4% rise in producer prices.

US chemical manufacturers are one of largest users of freight rail, shipping more than 33,000 carloads per week worth $2.8bn.

In 2021, freight railroads moved 2.2m carloads of plastics, fertilizers and other chemicals.

The highest-volume chemical carried by US railroads is ethanol.

More than half of all rail chemical carloads consist of various industrial chemicals, including soda ash, caustic soda, urea, sulphuric acid and anhydrous ammonia.

Plastic materials and synthetic resins account for close to one-quarter of rail chemical carloads.

Most of the rest is agricultural chemicals.

In the US, chemical railcar loadings represent about 20% of chemical transportation by tonnage, with trucks, barges and pipelines carrying the rest.

Additional reporting by Adam Yanelli

Thumbnail shows a railroad track. Image by Shutterstock.


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