train
A BNSF train rounds a bend near East Glacier after traversing Marias Pass. Credit: Loco Steve, via Flickr

The U.S. Senate voted Thursday to force four railroad unions to accept the terms of a labor contract their members had previously rejected, preventing a possible strike that would have brought freight and passenger trains to a halt across the nation as early as next week. 

It was the first time in 30 years that the federal government wielded the power to prevent railroad strikes given to it by the Railway Labor Act of 1926.

The vote brought to an end a months-long standoff between labor and railroad management that stemmed from a contentious round of contract talks. Those negotiations focused not just on compensation, but also on working conditions at the nation’s largest freight railroads, including BNSF Railway and Union Pacific, both of which operate in Montana. 

Back in September, it looked as if tens of thousands of railroaders were ready to walk off the job. But then White House officials helped broker an eleventh-hour deal to avoid a national strike. That deal was based on recommendations made by a Presidential Emergency Board established earlier in the summer to study the issue. The new deal called for a retroactive 24% wage increase over a five-year period from 2020 through 2024, as well as a $5,000 bonus. 

Railroaders, however, were critical of the deal because it did not address some of their biggest concerns, specifically work attendance policies that some railroads, including BNSF, have adopted. The railroads say those policies help them ensure they have enough people to move trains. But labor leaders have called them “draconian,” noting that it’s nearly impossible for workers to take a day off even for a medical appointment. Union officials added that they believed these policies were being introduced only because railroads have dramatically reduced their workforce in recent years. According to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, America’s largest freight railroads have reduced their workforce by a combined 45,000 people, or 29%, in the last six years

In October and November, the new contracts were put to a vote by union members across the country. Eight unions accepted the contracts, but four rejected them, including SMART Transportation Division, one of the largest rail unions in the country. That vote launched a “cooling-off” period in which management and labor would again try to hash out a deal. But as the Dec. 9 deadline approached, it looked as if no agreement would be reached and a strike was imminent. 

On Monday, President Joe Biden called on Congress to resolve the dispute in order to avoid a shutdown of the rail network right before the holidays. Two days later, the House of Representatives made two votes: one to force the four remaining unions to adopt the Tentative Agreement and another to require that railroads provide at least seven paid sick days to employees. 

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate had its say. The bill to implement the Tentative Agreement passed 80 to 15 (five senators did not vote), but the amendment to require paid sick leave failed 52 to 43 (again with five not voting). Montana Sen. Jon Tester voted in favor of both, and Sen. Steve Daines voted to implement the agreement, but against paid sick leave for the railroaders. 

A spokesperson for Daines said he made his vote to protect Montana’s agricultural and energy industries from a devastating rail shutdown. Tester echoed those same concerns. 

“Passing this legislation will protect American jobs and is the right move for our economy,” Tester said in a statement to the Montana Free Press. “A rail shutdown would’ve killed our supply chain, hurt workers and small businesses, and sent consumer prices through the roof. I’m looking forward to President Biden signing this resolution into law so that we can keep our economy moving and ensure that rail workers get the respect they deserve and the compensation to match.”

A request for comment from Montana U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, who voted against forcing the contracts on the unions earlier in the week, was not returned before this story was published. 

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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.