‘This Is a Time of Uncertainty and Anxiety For Our Passengers:' Metra Spokesperson Addresses Potential Rail Strike

Four of Metra's high traffic lines are scheduled to have service suspended starting late Thursday evening

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UPDATE: Thursday morning, following a tentative agreement reached by union workers and railroad companies, both Metra and Amtrak said all lines will run as scheduled, and that they were working to restore service to any previous pre-emptive cancelations. Our original story continues below.

Ahead of a possible freight rail strike that would suspend service on four of Metra's lines while leaving two more in question, many area residents are concerned about navigating their commutes with additional traffic.

Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis called the situation "very frustrating" on Wednesday while addressing the heightened anxiety as a potential Friday strike looms.

"I mean, it's the nature of our system. A lot of people think Metra has 11 lines we own and operate. It's just more complex than that and the fact is, the Chicago area has a great deal of interaction between freight and passenger trains, and it's something we have to deal with on a daily basis," Gillis said.

Gillis added that while freight rail strikes have not lasted long historically, they also typically don't happen at all. He attributed this to the large and immediate impact the labor action has, due to rail's prevalence in the shipment of goods.

"Usually, there is some sort of resolution and you know, we hope there will be a resolution or maybe an extension of the cooling off period so that there's more time to reach an agreement," Gillis said.

As of Wednesday, Metra anticipates service will be suspended beginning Thursday evening on the BNSF, Union Pacific North, Union Pacific West and Union Pacific Northwest lines.

The rail agency said it expects to operate trains on the Metra Electric, Rock Island, Southwest Service, Milwaukee District North, and Milwaukee District West lines. It remains unclear if trains will run on the Heritage Corridor or North Central Service lines, however.

Here's the latest update on where negotiations stand:

What Is the Strike About and Where Do Things Stand?

Members of one union rejected a tentative deal with the largest U.S. freight railroads Wednesday, while two ratified agreements and three others remained at the bargaining table just days ahead of a strike deadline, threatening to intensify snarls in the nation's supply chain that have contributed to rising prices.

About 4,900 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 19 voted to reject the tentative agreement negotiated by IAM leadership with the railroads, the union said Wednesday. But the IAM agreed to delay any strike by its members until Sept. 29 to allow more time for negotiations and to allow other unions to vote.

Railroads are trying to reach an agreement with all their other unions to avert a strike before Friday’s deadline. The unions aren't allowed to strike before Friday under the federal law that governs railroad contract talks.

There are 12 unions — one with two separate divisions — representing 115,000 workers that must agree to the tentative deals and then have members vote on whether to approve them. So far, nine had agreed to tentative deals and three others are still at the bargaining table.

Of the nine that agreed to the deals, two — the Transportation Communications Union and the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen unions — voted to ratify their contracts Wednesday. But IAM members voted to reject their deal. Votes by the other six unions that approved tentative deals are pending.

All the tentative deals are based closely on the recommendations of a Presidential Emergency Board Joe Biden appointed this summer that called for 24% raises and $5,000 in bonuses in a five-year deal that’s retroactive to 2020. Those recommendations also includes one additional paid leave day a year and higher health insurance costs.

Ron Kaminkow, general secretary of the Railroad Workers United labor coalition that includes workers from a variety of railroad unions, said he doesn't think the unions are demanding much at this point — just the kind of things most U.S. workers already enjoy like the ability to take time off without being penalized.

“We have attendance policies that have gotten more and more and more draconian. That offer very, very little leeway for workers who need to take time off for doctor’s appointments, for time with family, to be rested,” Kaminkow said.

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