The Associated Press
OMAHA, Neb. -- Railroad engineers accepted their deal with the railroads that will deliver 24% raises but conductors rejected theirs, threatening the health of the economy just before the holidays and casting more doubt on whether the industry will be able to resolve the labor dispute before next month's deadline without the help of Congress.
Even the threat of a work stoppage could tangle the nation's supply chain as railroads will freeze shipments of chemicals and other goods that could create hazards if disrupted midway to their destination.
A split vote Monday from the two biggest railroad unions follows the rejection by three other unions of their deals with the railroads that the Biden administration helped broker before the original strike deadline in September. Seven smaller unions have approved the five-year deal that, on top of the 24% raise, includes $5,000 in bonuses.
But many union members have voted to reject the contracts because, they say, they fail to address demanding schedules and quality of life issues for employees.
All 12 must approve the contracts to prevent a strike that could cripple supply chains and hamper a stressed U.S. economy still emerging from the pandemic.
The Retail Industry Leaders Association said a rail strike "would cause enormous disruption to the flow of goods nationwide" although retail stores are well stocked for the crucial holiday shopping season.
"Fortunately, this year's holiday gifts have already landed on store shelves. But an interruption to rail transportation does pose a significant challenge to getting items like perishable food products and e-commerce shipments delivered on time, and it will undoubtedly add to the inflationary pressures already hitting the U.S. economy," said Jess Dankert with the group that represents more than 200 major retailers.
The unions that rejected their deals agreed to return to the bargaining table to try to hash out a new agreement before a new strike deadline early next month. But those talks have deadlocked because the railroads refuse to consider adding paid sick time to what was already offered.
It appears increasingly likely that Congress will have to step in to settle the dispute. Lawmakers have the power to impose contract terms if both sides can't reach an agreement. Hundreds of business groups have urged Congress and President Joe Biden to be ready to intervene if needed.
Workers frustrated with the demanding schedules and deep job cuts in the industry pushed to reject these contracts because they don't resolve workers' key quality-of-life concerns.