AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
Remember just a couple of months ago when we came within hours of a nationwide rail strike? Well, we could see a repeat of that early next month. The nation's freight railroads are still locked in contract negotiations with several rail unions, and a significant number of workers are not happy with the deal that's on the table. NPR's Andrea Hsu has more.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAILROAD CROSSING BELLS)
ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Roughly 30% of freight in this country moves by rail - everything from cars to corn to barley for making beer. So you can imagine how disruptive it would be if the trains suddenly stopped. And it wouldn't just be freight trains. Some Amtrak and commuter trains would be affected, too. The railroad industry says a rail shutdown could cost the nation $2 billion a day. President Biden thought this nightmare scenario had been averted back in September. An emergency board he appointed had worked out a framework for a deal. Workers would get a 24% raise over five years and some quality of life improvements.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This is a win for tens of thousands of rail workers and for their dignity and the dignity of their work. It's a recognition of that.
HSU: But the rail union still had to vote on it - all 12 of them. Seven unions have since approved the deal, but three have voted no. So they're back negotiating. And we're still waiting on two more. The way it works - if any one union decides to strike, all of the unions will honor the picket lines. Reece Murtagh, a mechanic based in Richmond, Virginia, is willing and ready.
REECE MURTAGH: I want one of these unions to call them out. Let's see what actually happens, you know?
HSU: Murtagh's union voted narrowly to approve the deal, but he was a no vote. The raises, he says, barely keep up with inflation. Health care premiums could almost double. And the deal includes no paid sick days. That was perhaps the biggest disappointment.
MURTAGH: Our jaws hit the ground. We were like, what? Where are the sick days at?
HSU: Now, the railroads will point out their workers do have short-term disability insurance. It kicks in after a waiting period. But they don't get the kind of sick days that can be used when you wake up with the flu or you have a dental emergency. Murtagh says it's infuriating, especially after rail workers showed up all through COVID, even when the virus was spreading unchecked.
MURTAGH: One team I was on, half the team came down with it. We just worked with half the guys. We just went out there and put rail in with half the crew. We never skipped a beat out there.
HSU: Meanwhile, the railroads have been highly profitable, setting new records in 2021, in part because they've dramatically reduced the workforce by around 30%. The unions argue that they can well afford to be more generous. The railroad industry says the contract on the table is already the most generous in modern history. But deep in the report produced by Biden's emergency board, Murtagh found another reason the railroads are not offering more.
MURTAGH: It's on page 32, and I'm leafing through here to find it.
HSU: It's in the section that addresses the railroad's huge profits.
MURTAGH: Here it is. The carriers maintain that capital investment and risk are the reasons for their profits, not any contributions by labor.
HSU: Murtagh's first thought after reading that...
MURTAGH: Are you serious?
HSU: The words stung. He thought back on his years as a traveling mechanic, including during the pandemic - 14-hour days, trudging through all kinds of terrain in all sorts of weather, missing his young family back home. He printed out the page and posted it on his union bulletin board the next day.
MURTAGH: And everyone was like, what is that?
HSU: It's fueled his desire to see a rail strike. He thinks it may be the only way to have their voices heard. He knows that Congress would likely intervene to stop a strike and that workers could end up with less than what's on the table now. But that's a risk he wants to take. Andrea Hsu, NPR News.
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