The potential for a railroad closure rises as the largest union rejects a collective agreement

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The largest railroad union in the US repudiated its labor contract on Monday, setting the stage for a potential shutdown of the nation’s freight rail system in just two weeks.

Ordinary members of SMART-TD opposed the agreement, with 50.87% of conductors represented by the agreement voting against. The rejection comes on the same day that the country’s second largest union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, announced that its members had approved their contract.

“SMART-TD members have spoken with their voices, now it’s back to the negotiating table for our operational craft members,” SMART-TD president Jeremy Ferguson said in a statement. “It can all be settled through negotiations and without a strike. A settlement would be in the best interests of workers, the railroads, shippers, and the American people.”

SMART-TD, which represents more than 28,000 workers, is the fourth to reject the Biden administration-brokered deal as workers push for guaranteed sick-leave inclusion. Workers say they are subject to unpredictable schedules and strict attendance policies that prevent them from taking time off in the face of an unexpected illness.

The railroads have defied the call, saying the sick leave goes beyond recommendations by the Biden administration’s President’s Emergency Committee. SMART-TD has agreed to a reflection period until December 9, and the third-largest union – the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters – confirmed it would postpone its deadline to align schedules.

Another union that turned down their contract, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, could act sooner. The union’s deadline for an agreement is December 4, and a spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on whether the group would extend its reflection period.

If no agreement is reached before the deadline, Congress can intervene under the Railroad Labor Act to prevent significant supply chain disruptions. A Republican-drafted bill in Congress would force unions to accept the basic deal proposed by the Biden administration without the expanded benefits later negotiated.

The railroads are warning that even before the agreement deadline they will start reducing service to prevent potentially dangerous cargo from being abandoned. Ahead of a September deadline to reach an agreement, the airlines rolled out embargoes across their networks.

According to the Association of American Railroads, a strike or lockout could cost the economy around $2 billion a day. The American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, said in an emailed statement last week that a rail freight shutdown could shut down many facilities within five to seven days.

Shippers, representing retail, agriculture and manufacturing, have again called on Congress to intervene, warning that a railroad shutdown would wreak havoc on already fragile supply chains.

“Millions of hard-working Americans rely on the rail freight system for their jobs and for our nation’s economic security,” Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation, said in a statement Monday. “A nationwide rail strike during the peak holiday season will be devastating to American businesses, consumers and the US economy.”

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