RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We depend a whole lot on rail workers. They are at the heart of this country's supply chain. That's why there is so much concern right now that they could go on strike.
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
Yeah. This week, the largest of the freight rail unions became the latest to vote down a five-year contract agreement.
MARTIN: NPR's Andrea Hsu is here to explain how we got here, what to expect going forward. Hey, Andrea.
ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: First off, I thought we reported this already. I thought there was a deal not that long ago. What happened?
HSU: Yeah. Well, let's go back to summer. Back then, the railroads and the unions had been negotiating this contract for three years and getting nowhere. It was so bad, President Biden had to intervene. So he appointed this emergency board to come up with a framework for an agreement. And then in September, this is what you remember, the two largest rail unions and the railroads came to D.C. They huddled with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh for 20 hours straight. They emerged with a deal that they thought the rank and file would be happy with or at least accept. You'll recall Biden even took a little victory lap celebrating the deal as a win for everyone. But the workers still had to vote on it. And here's how that's gone. There are 12 freight rail unions, and all four of them have rejected the deal. And those four represent half of all the workers covered by this agreement. Now those unions have about 2 1/2 weeks to try to reach new deals with the railroad companies.
MARTIN: And if they don't, they strike.
HSU: Well, possibly. The earliest they could strike is December 9. And I should point out, the railroads could also lock workers out at that point. It's happened before. But there's some expectation that Congress would intervene by law. Congress does have the power to do any number of things to keep trains moving, including imposing the contract that the unions voted down or an earlier version or extending the negotiations. So any strike or lockout, if it were to happen at all, might only last hours, not days. But that - there's still a lot of anxiety. The National Retail Federation warned that a strike at peak holiday season would be devastating for American businesses and families who are already facing higher prices because of inflation. And, you know, more supply chain problems could cause prices to rise. The White House has called a shutdown unacceptable, noting the harm it would inflict on jobs, families, farms, businesses and communities.
MARTIN: All right. So say more, though, Andrea, about what rail workers want that the contract does not give them right now.
HSU: Well, a lot of them will tell you it's quality-of-life issues. They want paid sick days. They want more flexibility, especially those who are subject to strict attendance policies. Some are unhappy with the raises built into this contract. Twenty-four percent over five years sounds like a lot, but the workers point out that barely beats inflation. And meanwhile, the railroads have been enjoying record profits, in part because they've reduced the workforce so dramatically in recent years. I talked yesterday with Jeremy Ferguson. He's president of SMART Transportation Division. That's the union that just voted down the deal yesterday. He sees the no votes as workers finding a way to have their voices heard.
JEREMY FERGUSON: I hope the railroads are listening and that the CEOs realize that they have a serious issue, you know, with the workforce.
HSU: And, Rachel, that's something we've seen in other industries as well this year. Whether it's nurses and mental health workers going on strike or baristas and warehouse workers trying to form unions, they're all trying to send a message to the bosses that they're not OK with the status quo. So I think we shouldn't be too surprised that rail workers, who are so crucial to the nation's supply chain, that they're holding out at this moment just before the holidays. After all, they have the nation's attention right now, and they want to make the most of that.
MARTIN: They got a little bit leverage. Yeah. NPR's Andrea Hsu, thank you.
HSU: You're welcome.
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