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One union's rejection of a tentative rail deal puts the agreement in jeopardy


Last month, a possible rail worker strike threatened the economy before the White House brokered a tentative deal.


The 12 unions that represent about 115,000 workers are now voting on that agreement, and they all have to say yes for it to actually become an agreement. And this week, one of them said no deal.

MARTINEZ: NPR's politics reporter Ximena Bustillo joins us now to tell us what this means for the agreement. So we all knew it wasn't necessarily a done deal, but, Ximena, what happened?

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: I mean, there was always the risk that unions could vote against it. Even after the deal was reached, some members were still picketing. The thing to remember is that there are 12 different unions here involved in the rail system, and each individual union has to vote to accept or reject the deal. The first four unions voted yes. But the deal did not address a major sticking point for many of the workers, which is the very strict limits on sick leave and other absence policies. And this is just one of the reasons the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees union voted no. And it's a really big union, too, representing more than 11,000 workers.

MARTINEZ: And, you know, I remember President Biden taking a bit of a victory lap over this deal, but now it looks like he'll have to walk it back?

BUSTILLO: Well, last month, we saw members of Biden's Cabinet help broker this specific tentative deal. Things had stalled after months of negotiations, so Labor Secretary Marty Walsh worked literally through the night with unions and management. And here's what the president said from the Rose Garden the morning after they came to a tentative deal.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Together, we reached an agreement. You reached an agreement that will keep our critical rail system working and avoid disruptions of our economy.

BUSTILLO: This was really important for him because the midterm elections are coming up, and he didn't want a big strike that could make some goods hard to find or more expensive.

MARTINEZ: All right, so what happens now? I mean, are we looking at a strike now?

BUSTILLO: Well, the union's rejection of the tentative agreement means that now they're in what's called a status quo period. So it's back to the bargaining table for this one union. The union has already reached out to management to renegotiate the lack of paid sick leave. Here's the union's chief negotiator, Peter Kennedy.

PETER KENNEDY: We're going to go back to the table, and we're going to talk to the railroads about increased paid sick days because our members have made it very clear to us that the lack of paid sick days is a very significant issue for them.

BUSTILLO: The group that represents the railroads for bargaining said in a statement that it's disappointed, but they also said that there's no immediate risk of disruption. These talks can go on for some time, and the union can't strike before November 19, so it really is not an immediate threat. Meanwhile, voting for the seven other unions is expected to last into next month. Kennedy also told me that it is customary for all railroads to strike if one of them does, even if all the other ones reach a deal. But there's no telling in this case if they all would. And he said their goal is not to strike; everyone wants to reach a deal before then.

MARTINEZ: All right, so November 19 - that's the date to keep in mind. What's on the line here for getting an agreement?

BUSTILLO: Yeah, we have to remember that railroads transport 30 to 40% of goods in this country. When this issue first became a threat last month, there were major concerns over food and agriculture products because it would have coincided with harvest season. A November strike is not any better. It comes right ahead of the holiday season. The White House is also downplaying this vote. They say that there's still lots of time to reach a deal and that there is no immediate risk of a strike. Also on the line is the president's reputation for being pro-labor. He has long touted his support for unions and thanks union workers for helping him win the election. So this is a big test and also a test of his ability to fix supply chains and address inflation. So there's a lot on the line.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Ximena Bustillo. Thanks a lot.

BUSTILLO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.