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A month after a nationwide rail agreement was brokered, a Wyoming union leader says a strike may happen

An empty rail yard in Roanoke, Va.
M F Flaherty
Flickr via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
An empty rail yard in Roanoke, Va.

A month after the Biden administration helped broker an agreement between major railroad companies and rail unions to avoid a nationwide strike that would have brought rail traffic to a halt, the possibility of another strike may once again be a possibility. This comes after a major rail union recently rejected a tentative deal last week that puts the agreement in jeopardy.

The Biden-administration brokered deal was widely touted as a win for both the railroads and rail workers.

A dozen rail unions were party to last month's brokered agreement, and all must sign on to it to be ratified. A rejection from any one of them could trigger a strike due to the unwillingness of other unions to cross picket lines. Negotiations are ongoing in an effort to work out differences.

So far the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE), a division of the International Teamsters and the country’s third largest rail union, said that the majority of its members voted against ratifying the agreement. It represents approximately 11,000 rail workers nationwide.

Questions on the agreement are being gathered from union members, which are meant to clarify a part of or the entirety of an agreement. Questions that are not lined out in an agreement are then asked. Knutson added this aims to keep any issues from arising over years that an agreement is in effect. Regional differences and railroad specific agreements are also part of the issues that are being faced currently.

“Honestly, I think we could reach the point where we could go on strike,” said Kevin Knutson, a Gillette-based BNSF union leader. “[It’s] not just the unions and the railroads, but politics is also going to play a big part in this also because I think that they'll be set up. If we come to the point where we have [a] strike to put us to work or not even let us go on strike just because of how far it's moved in the political world.”

Currently, four unions have ratified the agreement with six others still pending on their decision. Knutson added that there won’t be a strike before the midterm elections in early November and that there’s a process that must take place before the agreement is ratified or not.

Last month’s Biden administration brokered agreement was the result of a failure of railroads and unions to reach an agreement ahead of a possible strike deadline. Benefits continue to be the pressing issue. The major Class I railroads have come under heated criticism for their attendance policies, which employees and unions have claimed are detrimental to employees’ quality of life.

“As far as us voting it down or voting it in, it's a tough thing even though it is a national agreement,” Knutson said. “So, all class one railroads, Norfolk Southern, CSX, UP [Union Pacific], BN[SF], KCS [Kansas City Southern] and a bunch of smaller ones. We're all voting across the nation for this agreement and a lot of times, it might be good for a railroad back East and if they have numbers, the contract will get ratified. So, right now it's up in the air. I am not sure how people are going to vote back East and even out here.”

The impacts on a strike could cost the U.S. economy more than $2 billion per day, according to the Association of American Railroads. It’s continuing between the freight railroads and the dozen unions.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.

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