Congress steps to avert impending rail strike at Biden's ask. What do the rail workers want?

President Biden asked Congress to intervene in a labor dispute between rail workers and their employers, hoping to quell an impending strike with the potential to upend the American economy. Wednesday afternoon, they obliged, with the House overwhelmingly passing legislation to help avert the labor dispute from escalating.

SMART Transportation Division, SMART-TD for short, a union representing conductors in the rail industry has rejected a deal brokered by the Biden Administration, upending the White House's efforts to avoid a strike before the holidays. With 51% of SMART-TD's members voting in opposition of the deal, the workers are poised to either strike, or be locked out by rail companies on Dec. 9.

The original tentative deal, reached in September, helped quell a widespread economic crisis as members of 12 unions representing rail workers across the country threatened to strike. Since then, three unions involved in negotiations -- now four with SMART-TD -- have rejected the deal.

The dispute escalated after almost three years of contract negotiations proved unfruitful, and railroad workers moved toward a strike over unmet demands for higher pay and better working conditions.

A potential strike could have devastating effects on the nation's supply chain and economic health. Much of the country's goods still travel by freight train. Ahead of the holiday season, a halting in the shipment of food products, and other critical goods could debilitate the economy.

Here's what you need to know about the railroad contract negotiations, what the railroad unions are asking for, and what the railway companies have agreed to.

Congress intervenes in rail strike: House passes legislation to avert 'catastrophic' rail strike; Senate to take up measure

What is the railroad strike of 2022? Why rail workers are striking and what it means for you

Why are rail unions planning to strike?

The rail unions are headed toward a strike over pay and ongoing grievances from members that the working conditions are grueling, and not conducive to a life off the job.

The schedules are of particular concern with rail workers citing a lack of sick leave, inability to routinely visit the doctor or tend to family emergencies, and weekslong stretches of being on call.

After years of contract negotiations, a united front of 12 railway unions threatened to strike over unmet demands, calling national attention to the dispute and kicking the White House into high gear. Since then the Biden Administration and the unions worked to broker a tentative deal, which eventually fell apart with four unions rejecting the terms. The President has now asked congress to intervene in hopes they can help stave off a strike with the potential to upend the American economy just in time for the holiday season.

What are the railroad unions asking for?

The railroad unions are asking freight and railway companies for a pay increase, as well as better working conditions, including paid time off and a more flexible schedule.

The railroad contract negotiations, which have been taking place between the railway unions and their major employers for almost three years, have involved heated debate over an attendance policy that union members says is oppressive. Unions have threatened to strike over members' inability to take time off for medical visits and family emergencies without fear of punishment.

Some companies had introduced unpopular points-based attendance systems as well, an unwelcome move among union members, who were already stretched thin because of the coronavirus pandemic and working on an on-call schedule.

In the tentative agreement reached early Thursday morning and announced by the White House, railroad unions were granted wage increases, bonuses and no increases to insurance copays and deductibles.

What is the Railway Labor Act of 1926?

The Railway Labor Act, enacted in 1926 and amended in 1934 and again 1966 gives Congress the power to step in and impose a contract on both the unions and the railway companies.

It provides dispute resolution guidelines aimed at coaxing one or both sides to reach an agreement and avert a national shutdown. Congress can either extend the "cooling-off period" -- allowing both sides more time to negotiate, implement the terms of an unratified agreement, or act on the recommendations of the Presidential Emergency Board.

How much do rail workers make?

There is no standard set salary as compensation may vary based on position and employer.

As part of ongoing negotiations, rail unions are asking in part for better pay for their members.

The tentative agreement reached in September had included a 24% compounded wage increase over five years, starting in 2020 and running through 2024. It also accounted for five annual $1,000 lump sum payments, Reuters reports.

What union represents railroad workers?

There is no one union.

Rail workers belong to a number of unions. All of them have been working together to push company management to accept workplace improvements, including higher pay and conditions that better facilitate work-life balance.

How many railroad unions are there?

Twelve railroad unions form the coalition for National Freight Rail Bargaining. The coalition is able to use combined power to push for employees' demands.

The unions are:

  • International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers - Transportation Div. including Yardmasters (SMART-TD & SMART-TD-YDM)

  • Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen (BLET)

  • Brotherhood Railway Carmen (BRC)

  • Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS)

  • International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM)

  • International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)

  • Transportation Communications International Union (TCU)

  • National Conference of Firemen and Oilers (NCFO)

  • American Train Dispatchers Association (ATDA)

  • International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Blacksmiths, Iron Ship Builders, Forgers and Helpers (IBB)

  • Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWED)

  • International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART-MECHANICAL DIV.)

When was the last railroad strike?

The railroad industry has not seen a strike since 1992, when members of the International Association of Machinists union did not show up for work over a dispute with their employer.

The effects of the strike were immediate as a large swath of the country's freight railways ground to a stop. Congress intervened just three days later to broker a new contract.

The immediate and all-encompassing effects of a rail strike are an issue of such national importance that Marty Walsh, Biden's secretary of labor, stepped in to help rail workers reach a tentative agreement.

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877

Though there have been rail strikes as recently as the '90s, America's most infamous railroad labor action happened more than a century ago in 1877, when rail workers walked off the job across the country.

Dubbed the "Great Railroad Strike of 1877," the strike followed an announcement by the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad that it would cut wages, the company's second such announcement in less than a year.

In that strike, workers allegedly destroyed railroad company property and interrupted service. In response to the strike, the governor of Maryland called on federal troops and local militias to intervene.

Why is Amtrak canceling trains?

Amtrak, a popular commuter railroad company with lines running across the country, canceled all long-distance trains amid fears of an impending strike in September. Service has since resumed.

Why would Amtrak cancel trips if its workers weren't on strike?

Despite not being directly involved in the dispute, Amtrak trains run almost totally on tracks that are maintained and operated in part by freight railroad companies.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why are rail unions striking? Railroad, freight workers demands.