Members of the National Conference of Firemen & Oilers (NCFO) have voted by a 58.7% margin to ratify their labor contract with U.S. freight railroads.

The agreement calls for the highest wage increase in 48 years, five annual service recognition payments, an additional paid day off and enhanced autism health care benefits, according to NCFO President Dean Devita. The agreement also calls for increasing a maximum hearing benefit from $600 to $2,000, a 22% wage increase and retroactive pay within the next 60 days. 

“Besides the strong wage increases and the increase in our health insurance, many members of the NCFO are disappointed with the terms of the agreement. I strongly agree with them,” Devita said in a Thursday news release. “Quality of life issues after the COVID-19 crisis is extremely important, sick leave and time off to visit medical practitioners are more important today than it was 48 years ago. Although the agreement is finalized, the NCFO will continue to work on this and many other issues. 

“The members made their decision, let’s respect everyone’s opinion and continue to fight for the rights of our members.”

There are now six unions that have agreed to ratify their respective labor agreements and five that still need to approve their tentative agreements, according to the National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC), the group representing the freight railroads in labor negotiations. 

Most recently, on Wednesday evening, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) announced that 54% of the members of its mechanical and engineering division had voted in favor of ratifying a labor agreement between the union and U.S. freight railroads.

Another SMART division representing train conductors has yet to vote on whether to ratify its tentative agreement.

But earlier this week, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED) voted to reject its tentative agreement, sending the union and the freight railroads back to the negotiating table. The rejection raised questions again about whether a strike could occur should BMWED fail to reach an agreement for a new labor contract. 

A new labor deal for union members has been in the works since January 2020, but negotiations with the railroads soon failed to progress. A federal mediation board took up the negotiations but released the parties from those efforts earlier this summer. 

The Presidential Emergency Board — a three-person, independent panel appointed by President Joe Biden — convened in July and August to come up with ways that the unions and railroads could resolve the impasse and issued recommendations in September. The guidance was meant to serve as a jumping-off point for a new contract.

The other four unions that have approved their agreements are the American Train Dispatchers Association, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Transportation Communications Union and the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen.

The six unions that have agreed to ratify their labor agreements represent roughly 19% of a unionized workforce representing 124,500 workers, based on 2020 headcount numbers, according to figures provided by transportation analyst Bascome Majors with Susquehanna Financial Group, an investment firm.

The last time the specter of a potential strike arose was when two of the largest labor unions — those representing locomotive engineers and train conductors — reached an 11th-hour tentative agreement with the railroads in September. Their agreement averted a rail strike that could have begun as early as Sept. 16.

The earliest that BMWED could go on strike would be after Nov. 19. The union must maintain the status quo until then, per federal law. BMWED members equal just less than one-fifth of all unionized rail workers, according to Majors’ estimates, while the two unions representing locomotive engineers and train conductors represent roughly half of all unionized rail workers in the U.S.

NCFO is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union.

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