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As holidays near, a nationwide rail strike is still on the table. Here's the latest

Freight cars wait to be hauled out of the Norfolk Southern Conway Terminal in Conway, Pa., on Sept. 15.
Gene J. Puskar
Freight cars wait to be hauled out of the Norfolk Southern Conway Terminal in Conway, Pa., on Sept. 15.

Remember earlier this fall when the country came within hours of a nationwide rail strike?

We could soon see a repeat of that scenario. The nation's freight rail companies and some of their workers have yet to settle on a new contract after three years of negotiations.

On Monday, we'll find out whether the two largest rail unions have approved or rejected the proposed five-year deal.

You could be forgiven for thinking — Wait, what? Wasn't this already settled?

Turns out, not really.

The tentative agreement brokered in Washington disappointed many rail workers

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In mid-September, following marathon negotiations in Washington that dragged on into the wee hours of the morning, there was an agreement — a tentative one. Based largely on the recommendations of an emergency board appointed by President Biden, the deal gave workers a 24% raise over five years, one additional personal day, and modest modifications tostrict attendance policies, among other things.

President Biden called it an important win for the economy, the American people, and for rail companies and workers alike.

The Association of American Railroads hailed the agreement as historic, noting that upon ratification, workers will see an immediate average payout of $16,000 in retroactive raises and bonuses.

But a significant number of rail workers have said it's not enough.

The proposed wage increases barely keep up with inflation, they say, while their health care premiums could nearly double by the end of the contract. Moreover, paid sick days are not part of the agreement. For some, that's proving to be a deal breaker.

All 12 unions must ratify the deal to avoid a rail shutdown

The way the rail unions operate — all 12 unions representing roughly 115,000 freight rail workers must ratify the new contract to prevent a nationwide rail shutdown. If one strikes, the others all honor the picket lines.

If that were to happen, not only freight trains but some Amtrak trains and commuter rail systems would come to a halt. It would be an economic disaster, costing the country as much as $2 billion a day, the railroad industry has warned.

Congress could then intervene and simply impose the recommendations of Biden's Presidential Emergency Board. The unions would lose some of the sweeteners that were added in the eleventh hour.

So far, seven unions have voted to ratify the tentative agreement. But three others representing roughly 30,000 workers have voted it down. And the largest two unions, representing roughly 60,000 locomotive engineers and train conductors, are wrapping up voting now, with results expected Monday.

Should any one of them fail to reach an agreement, a strike or a lockout by the rail companies could come as early as 12:01 am on December 9.

Even before that, some rail service could be suspended, as we saw happen in September. The railroads have plans in place to stop shipments of hazardous materials starting 96 hours before a strike deadline. Amtrak would start cancelling its long-distance trains soon after.

A mechanic says the new contract is merely "treading water"

In Richmond, Virginia, roadway mechanic Reece Murtagh would gladly join a picket line.

His union — the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District Lodge 19 — was on the verge of a strike in September after members rejected an earlier version of the contract and voted overwhelmingly to strike.

"We were ready to go," Murtagh says. "There was excitement in the air."

Instead, the union leadership extended the strike deadline as negotiations with other unions played out in Washington. Then in a second vote in early November, his union ratified what union leaders presented as an enhanced agreement.

Murtagh was among the 48% who remained opposed.

He's unhappy not just with the rail company whose heavy equipment he maintains and repairs, but also with his union leadership for not fighting harder.

"You're more or less treading water. You're not really gaining a whole lot," he says of the agreement.

Like many rail workers, he expected better, in part because of what he'd been hearing from the White House. President Biden has repeatedly talked of being the most pro-union administration in American history. He appointed former union leader Marty Walsh as Secretary of Labor. If anyone would go to bat for rail workers, it would be this president and this labor secretary, Murtagh believed.

"It was like, this is our time," he says.

He was stunned when Biden's Presidential Emergency Board released its recommendations, which became the framework for the tentative agreement. The unions had requested 15 paid sick days, up from zero. The board responded by recommending just one additional personal day.

"We carried a railroad on our backs through a pandemic," says Murtagh, who was on a team repairing rail in the Berkshires in the spring of 2020 when everything around them was closed. "We were surviving off Gatorade and peanuts. Everyone in the team got COVID. We never skipped a beat."

Railroad companies say workers already have paid sick leave

The freight railroads point out that their workers do get paid sick leave. Under the federal Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act, those unable to work due to sickness can receive up to 26 weeks of partial pay, after a waiting period.

But the unions counter that this amounts to short-term disability coverage, not the kind of paid sick days that workers need when they wake up with flu symptoms or a migraine or have a sick child at home to care for.

Richard Edelman, an attorney for two of the unions that have voted no on the tentative agreement, says they are still seeking at least four days of paid sick leave, but so far, the railroads have not shown interest.

Reductions in the workforce have contributed to big profits for the railroads

The railroad industry says its goal is still to reach voluntary agreements with all 12 unions.

Edelman is not sure it can happen unless the railroads budge on sick leave.

"The railroads really are self-deluded," he says. "They seem to believe that the workers are happy, or ought to be happy, and just don't understand the level of anger."

A lot of the anger stems from the fact that in recent years, the railroads have reduced the workforce by 30%. A smaller workforce is now moving more freight, resulting in stunning profits for the railroads over the last five or six years, Edelman says.

On the road, Murtagh has felt the effects of a smaller workforce. Until late last year, he was a traveling mechanic, routinely working 14-hour days on a team tasked with replacing sections of rail.

"We never have enough people to fill the positions," he says. "The manpower that we have is having to do the work of an extra person, or work an extra five hours. It's a hard lifestyle."

He's considered quitting and taking his skills somewhere else, maybe John Deere. But the latest contract fight has lit a fire under him. He's now running for president of his union.

"People want change," he says. "I'm going to be the person to bring that change."

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Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.