A BNSF Railway employee is seen in the Essex rail yard in January 2022.
A BNSF Railway employee is seen in the Essex rail yard in January 2022. Credit: Justin Franz

A sense of deja vu is overtaking the U.S. railroad industry this week as labor leaders and major railroad representatives try to figure out how to avoid a strike that could bring freight and passenger trains to a halt in the middle of the busy holiday shipping season. 

It’s a scenario eerily similar to one that played out just over two months ago, when White House officials helped broker an eleventh-hour deal to avoid a national strike back in September. But that deal was only temporary while it awaited ratification votes by workers represented by 12 different labor unions. 

On Monday, the last and biggest of the 12 unions announced the results of their contract votes: Locomotive engineers voted in favor of the agreement, 54% for and 47% against, but conductors voted against it 51% to 49%. The conductors’ union, SMART Transportation Division, now joins three smaller unions back at the negotiating table to try and hash out a deal with six of North America’s seven largest railroads to avoid a strike or lockout. They face a Dec. 8 deadline.

Labor leaders, railroad management and President Joe Biden touted the tentative agreement inked back in September as a win for all sides. As part of the contract, railroaders will receive the largest wage increase in 45 years plus a $5,000 bonus. But the contract, the result of years of negotiations, comes at a time of palpable frustration among workers about how the railroads are being run and how workers are being treated. While railroading has always been a tough industry that demands long hours and an unpredictable work schedule, engineers, conductors and others say their working conditions have never been worse. Earlier this year, hundreds of railroaders quit after BNSF Railway enacted a new attendance policy — including in Montana, where the Texas-based railroad employs more than 2,200 people and owns 2,592 miles of track.

“Workers are fed up right now,” AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Greg Regan said last month shortly after two smaller unions voted down their own contracts.

Presently, the unions that have voted against ratification are in “cooling-off” periods that will expire during the first full week of December. At that point, either the unions could go on strike or the railroads could lock employees out. But even if only one union went on strike, it would likely have a cascading effect as workers in other unions refuse to cross the picket line.

In a press release, the president of SMART Transportation Division said that he hoped the railroads and labor could come together to find a resolution without a strike. 

“SMART-TD members with their votes have spoken, it’s now back to the bargaining table for our operating craft members,” said President Jeremy Ferguson. “This can all be settled through negotiations and without a strike. A settlement would be in the best interests of the workers, the railroads, shippers and the American people.”

But it’s unclear how much more the railroad industry is willing to give. Association of American Railroads President Ian Jefferies said in a news release that the window for a deal was “narrowing” and that Congress should be prepared to act if a strike does occur. In decades past, Congress has enacted back-to-work legislation to keep railroaders on the job to protect the nation’s supply chain. 

The Association of American Railroads estimates a shutdown of the U.S. freight rail network could cost the national economy $2 billion per day.

Back when a strike looked likely in September, railroads began to secure hazardous material shipments so loads wouldn’t be left unattended outside of rail yards and Amtrak, which often operates its passenger service on tracks owned by the freight railroads, began to cancel trains. That would likely happen again if a deal is not reached and Congress doesn’t act before the deadline.

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.