Nearly 5,000 workers affiliated with the International Association of Machinists have rejected a contract with rail carriers and authorized a strike, throwing a wrench in the Biden administration’s efforts to avoid a nationwide shutdown.
Members of IAM District 19 voted to give leadership the green light to strike if necessary—the first union to do so in the escalating battle between organized labor and rail carriers. But the local chapter said it also agreed to an extension until Sept. 29 to allow negotiations to continue, signaling that members may not strike immediately when a federal freeze ends at midnight Sept. 16.
Four unions have rejected or refused to approve tentative agreements, suggesting that angst among the rank-and-file may be deeper than labor and government leaders knew. The IAM District 19 said in a statement that an extension would allow negotiations to continue “in the hopes of achieving an agreement our membership would ratify.”
The rejection complicates the White House’s efforts to broker a deal among the parties. US Labor Secretary Marty Walsh led a marathon round of negotiations between rail carriers and unions in Washington on Wednesday as White House staff made contingency plans to protect the national supply chain.
The rejection vote comes after the Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen voted Sept. 12 not to send a tentative agreement to membership for ratification, saying it will instead spend the week continuing to negotiate “and preparing for the next steps.”
Two other Machinists-affiliated unions comprising nearly 1,000 workers—the Transportation Communications Union and the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen—must also approve agreements with the railway companies. The results of those elections haven’t been released.
Two major unions still haven’t reached an agreement with the National Carriers’ Conference Committee, which represents rail companies including BNSF, CSX, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific in collective bargaining. One of the labor groups, SMART, told congressional leaders earlier this week that the proposal from Biden’s emergency board would fail overwhelmingly if presented to membership for a vote, based on internal polling.
“Our members are tired and worthy of dignity and respect,” wrote Greg Hynes, the group’s transportation division legislative director.
It’s rare but not unheard of for union members to reject a tentative agreement.
White House advisers have been determined to keep that from happening.
“This is an issue that can and should be worked out between the rail companies and the unions, not by Congress,” Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday aboard Air Force One.