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Third union rejects railway contract

freight train

Following the midterms has been so fascinating that other news stories have faded into the background. 

Like a potential nationwide rail strike. When could that happen? 

Maybe December. 

richard smoley produce blueprints

That’s because on November 14, the third union involved in negotiations with the nation’s freight railroads—the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers (IBB)—turned down a deal brokered by the Biden administration.  

“IBB joins the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS) and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (BMWED) in rejecting the proposed contracts providing rail workers a 24% wage increase during the five-year period from 2020 through 2024,” reports Fox Business.

The wage increase sounds generous (plus $5,000 in bonuses), but as one BMWED member has observed, it doesn’t keep up with inflation. 

There is some dispute about the average railroad worker’s wage. Railroad negotiators claim the workers affected by the new contracts made an average of $122,000 per year as of 2018. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a railroad worker was $64,150 as of 2021. 

Seven of the twelve unions involved ratified the agreement, and two remain to decide. But the agreement must be unanimously approved in order to go into effect.  

The objections focus on failure to provide sick time and address issues of skeleton crews.

Workers wanted 15 paid sick days, but the agreement only provided one. Workers also wanted the right to take unpaid sick days, but the agreement did not address the issue. 

Some workers are especially irked because their union representatives did not consult with them before agreeing to the Biden-brokered deal in September.  

The original cooling-off period, during which unions agreed not to strike, was Saturday, November 19. A strike that went into effect on that date would cause the nation’s supply chain to seize up.  

But a number of unions have agreed to continue negotiating into early December. 

However, this dispute turns out, it seems clear that stagnant real wages over decades, now made worse by inflation, will lead to continuing labor unrest in many industries.  


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.