Unions accuse railroads of 'corporate terrorism' as strike deadline nears

Fears grow of a looming shutdown

Two of the major rail labor unions that remain in negotiations with railroads over a new deal for workers are accusing the companies of committing "corporate terrorism," raising fears that a strike could be inevitable with only days left to reach a deal before Friday's midnight deadline.

The leaders of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) Transportation Division and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) Teamters Rail Conference said over the weekend that major railroad firms "began warning major shippers" late last Friday "that they are declaring an embargo on certain types of new shipments five days in advance of the end of the federally mandated cooling off period" in a move the unions said was "no more than corporate extortion."

A freight train parked in rail yard

A BNSF Railway Company train is parked in Seattle.  (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File / AP Newsroom)

SMART and BLET are two of the four unions that have not agreed to the current deal proposed by a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) appointed by President Biden, which would provide 24% cumulative raises and thousands in additional bonuses over a 5-year contract covering some 115,000 rail workers. The rail companies and eight out of 12 unions have agreed to the plan, but the holdouts argue that it does not go far enough to protect railroad employees and address their working conditions.

If a deal is not reached by the deadline, a strike or lockout could occur, in which case Congress is expected to get involved. In the meantime, a shutdown of the rail system could decimate the nation's already fragile supply chain and cost the economy an estimated $2 billion a day. 


However, SMART President Jeremy Ferguson and BLET President Dennis Pierce said in a joint statement on Sunday that the PEB deal falls short of what their members need, raising the prospect that reaching an agreement by the end of the workweek is even less likely.

A BNSF train pulls out of yard

A BNSF rail terminal worker monitors the departure of a freight train, on June 15, 2021, in Galesburg, Illinois.  (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar, File / AP Newsroom)

"The railroads are using shippers, consumers, and the supply chain of our nation as pawns in an effort to get our Unions to cave into their contract demands knowing that our members would never accept them," the statement reads. "Our Unions will not cave into these scare tactics, and Congress must not cave into what can only be described as corporate terrorism."


The unions argue that under current conditions, their members are being fired for calling in sick or going to the doctor, and that the PEB proposal does not address those concerns. 

The National Railway Labor Conference (NRLC), which represents the major railroad companies in the contract talks, issued a release of its own on Sunday, disputing the two unions' claims.

The NRLC said that rail employees currently receive up to five weeks of vacation and up to 14 paid holidays under their current labor agreement.

BNSF Freight train

A BNSF railroad train hauling carloads of coal from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming is seen east of Hardin, Montana., on July 15, 2020.  ( (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File) / AP Newsroom)

Rail employees receive up to five weeks of vacation in addition to up to 14 paid holidays and/or paid leave days (all depending on craft and seniority). They also participate in a carrier-funded federal sickness benefit program, and many have access to other benefits under existing labor agreements.


"Operating craft employees also can ‘mark off’ – or temporarily remove themselves from service – for any reason, as long as they maintain a reasonable level of overall availability under carrier attendance policies," the NRLC said in its release. "Against this backdrop, it is simply untrue to assert that employees cannot take any time off to attend to things like preventative medical exams."