Members of the largest railroad union in the United States have voted against a potential contract deal, increasing the possibility of a strike.
In a vote on Monday, employees from the train and engine services of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) rejected a preliminary agreement reached in September.
“The ball is now on the railways. Let’s see what they’re doing. They can sort it out at the negotiating table,” Jeremy Ferguson, president of SMART-TD, said in a statement.
Voters in the union cited unresolved quality of life issues, including demanding timetables, as reasons for rejecting the deal.
Railroad companies, meanwhile, have refused to move on issues such as paid sick leave and have not said they are ready to resume negotiations, opening up the possibility of intervention by the United States Congress to avoid a massive strike that could shake the country’s supply chain.
The vote is taking place against the backdrop of an upsurge in work organization in the USA, as workers push for higher pay and better working conditions.
While members of SMART-TD rejected the contract on Monday, another major railroad union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), voted in favour. Both unions, together with 10 smaller unions, must approve new contracts to avoid a strike.
Seven of the 12 trade unions have previously approved the deal. Three voted against but agreed to extend a strike period until early December.
The agreement dates back to an emergency panel convened by US President Joe Biden earlier this year to avoid costly cargo disruptions. A rail shutdown could freeze up to 30 percent of US freight shipments by weight, which would impact various sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing, and retail.
The Biden Presidential Emergency Board released a 124-page report in August that laid the groundwork for the five-year contract. The proposal provides for a cumulative salary increase of 24 percent for employees and a bonus of $5,000 over a period of five years. Railway companies have described the agreement as the “most generous wage package in almost 50 years.”
The US Congress has the power to enforce contract terms if an agreement is not reached in time to avoid a strike. Business groups have called on Biden, who helped broker the preliminary deal in September, to be prepared to intervene.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre described a shutdown last month as “completely unacceptable” and said it was the “responsibility of the parties involved to resolve this issue.”
The group, which is negotiating on behalf of the railway companies, said on Monday that the unions should not expect to receive more than was determined by the Emergency Committee.
Should Congress intervene, it is not clear which group would prefer this intervention. Republican lawmakers could push unions to accept the terms set by the Presidential Emergency Board, while Democratic lawmakers could push for additional concessions from the railroads.