President of largest rail union predicts congressional intervention after ‘no’ vote

The president of the largest freight rail union is skeptical he’ll be able to reach a new agreement with carriers in time to prevent an economically devastating strike — and predicts Congress will likely soon step in.

“I’m hopeful, but I doubt it’s really in the cards,” SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson said in an interview Monday night. “I’ve got a lot of issues that are outstanding; that are reasons why our guys voted it down.”

SMART-TD, which represents nearly 40,000, or 3 in 10, freight rail workers, announced Monday that its members had voted down a tentative agreement with employers out of frustration over time-off, among other things — sending negotiators back to the table after the White House helped unions and rail companies broker compromise in September. Those involved have little more than a week until a cooling-off period, which forbids any kind of work stoppage, expires at midnight on Dec. 4.

“Something’s gotta happen by then, otherwise we’ll all walk,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson predicts lawmakers will exercise their ability to step in before then — though it remains unclear whether they will impose the recommendations of a presidentially appointed emergency board as employers want; impose the unions’ respective tentative agreements like some officials have advocated; or simply extend the cooling-off period to give negotiators more time. Unions and Democrats have urged repeatedly against congressional intervention in hopes of maintaining as much leverage as possible.

“It’s such a short time frame,” Ferguson said. “I think we’re going to see Congress panic and step in here at some point next week, unfortunately.”

Ferguson said he will reenter negotiations with carriers Tuesday alongside officials from three smaller freight rail unions that have also voted down their tentative agreements. “They’re already in discussions from weeks ago, of course, but I’m going to join the party,” he said

Yet, based on how those talks have gone thus far, Ferguson doesn’t anticipate being able to gain much ground, particularly since SMART-TD’s proposed contract made more complicated changes to attendance and other policies.

“We’ll see if it goes anywhere,” Ferguson said. But “carriers haven’t been willing to move with the other three unions” — “and already, our agreement has a lot of work rules changes in which theirs really didn’t.” So “it’s a bigger hill for us to climb.”

Union officials haven’t heard much from Congress at this point, Ferguson said, leaving them mostly in the dark as to their plans. The House and Senate are out this week ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.

There is “no true indication yet what’s going to go on,” Ferguson said. But “everybody’s ready to get it done; get it over.”

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