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Tentative labor deal averts rail strike — for now

Iowa rail union leader ‘quietly optimistic’ labor agreement will pass

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Tentative labor deal averts rail strike — for now

Train shipments of grain, fertilizer, lumber, produce and fuel will not come to a screeching halt on Friday, as a strike that could have idled freight and passenger trains across the state and the country seems to have been averted — for now.

After some 20 hours of negotiations, railroad leaders and unions announced a tentative agreement Thursday morning that, at the least, paused a pending national rail strike that had the potential to shut down rail shipments across a variety of industry sectors and hobble already struggling supply chains.

Iowa Democrats said the proposed deal would provide better pay, improved working conditions and peace of mind for railroad workers in the state around their health care costs, echoing a statement from President Joe Biden announcing the tentative agreement early Thursday morning.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, meanwhile, cautioned in a Senate floor speech that there’s no guarantee that union members — who have been furious with employers for years over working conditions — will ratify the agreement. If they don’t, Grassley said Congress must step in and force railroad workers and companies to accept recommendations from a White House panel to avoid a strike that would affect millions of Americans.

“The alternative is unacceptable,” Grassley said.

“A railroad strike would plunge us back into the supply chain issues that have just now started to improve,” he said. “These trains carry the food we eat, the gas for our tanks and the energy that heats our homes. Already, I’m hearing from grain elevators that they’re having trouble transporting feed.”

Hazardous cargo — such as the chlorine that cities need to purify drinking water — stopped moving earlier this week due to the potential strike, and Amtrak canceled long-distance passenger train routes that run on tracks owned, maintained and dispatched by freight railroads.

“But this is just the tip of the iceberg unless they agree to a long-term deal,” Grassley said.

“The last thing we need is for grain shipments to grind to a halt right as farmers are trying to harvest their crops. Iowa corn and soybeans can’t feed the world if they are stuck on the farm.”

An official for one of the unions that represents represent engineers and conductors in Iowa said railroad workers in the state had yet to see specifics of the tentative agreement, but that workers were quietly optimistic.

The Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, or SMART-TD, has roughly 700 members in the state, mainly train conductors and some engineers.

“I’m glad that they’ve reached a voluntary, tentative agreement before the deadline was reached,” aid Christopher Smith, Iowa state legislative director for SMART-TD. “We hope that the agreement is good enough that membership can ratify a vote, and go from there.”

Smith said he was hesitant to say too much about the agreement and the threat of a possible strike as negotiations continue.

U.S. freight railroad workers were close to striking over claims that grueling schedules, strict on-call policies and poor working conditions have been driving employees out of the industry over the past several years.

A major sticking point in the labor dispute between rail companies and the unions was the adoption of a points-based attendance policy by some carrier. Those policies penalize workers, up to termination, for going to routine doctor’s visits or attending to family emergencies.

Conductors and engineers say that they can be on call for 14 consecutive days without a break and that they do not receive a single sick day, paid or unpaid.

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Rail employees remained on the job throughout the pandemic, often working mandatory overtime to compensate for staff cuts and departures, but note they have gone without a raise for three years while rail companies saw record profits in 2021 and stock buybacks have boosted shareholder values.

The railroad and unions have been negotiating a new contract since 2019.

SMART-TD’s Smith also pointed to a paragraph in a report issued by a presidential emergency board appointed by Biden to help the resolve the labor contract dispute between major freight railroads and unions.

The paragraph states the rail companies believe “that capital investment and risk are the reasons for their profits, not any contributions by labor.” It also says the carriers “assert that since employees have been fairly and adequately paid for their efforts and do not share in the downside risks if the operations are less profitable, then they have no claim to share in the upside, either.”

Smith said the statement riled union membership that “has worked through the pandemic and now works hard to maintain the railroad in the place it is.”

“That is still a troubling statement … that we have to work to get past,” he said. “So hopefully … this agreement is good and we can move forward.”

Smith said members were largely reserving judgment until they have a chance to see the exact wording and get briefed on the tentative agreement, “which could take a couple of days.”

“We quietly are remaining optimistic,” he said. “… We have faith in our national bargaining team that if they’re coming back saying they have something that’s worthwhile to potentially ratify, we’re entrusting them to bring forward a good contract.”

One Pleasant Hill, Iowa, railroad worker with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, who did not wish to be identified, said he was “still processing and trying to understand the details” of the proposed deal, but that he heard from workers who were not pleased.

The worker said that, if implemented, the agreement still would contribute to attrition and health and safety problems, and that it does not address current labor concerns needed to build a better-functioning rail network and supply chain.

Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Ross Wilburn, however, called the tentative agreement an “important win for our economy and Iowans.”

“So the bottom line is that rail workers deserve a fair contract,” Wilburn told reporters Thursday, noting his brother is a retired rail worker. “A fair contract and bargaining in good faith is critical.

“But, regardless of what happens, this tentative agreement ensures that rail workers will get better pay, improved working conditions and peace of mind around their health care costs.”

Iowa’s lone Democrat in Congress, U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne of West Des Moines, applauded rail union leaders “for reaching a tentative agreement on a new contract that will avoid a work stoppage.”

“It’s disappointing that union leaders had to fight so hard for fundamental and reasonable demands such as unpaid time off so their members could visit the doctor or take care of loved ones without penalty,” Axne said.

“While this agreement still needs to be ratified, I am optimistic this progress will keep our goods moving and give a raise and better working conditions for the men and women who work day in and day out to provide for their families and help Iowa farmers and businesses get their goods to market.”

Caleb McCullough of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report.

Comments: (319) 398-8499; tom.barton@thegazette.com

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