US rail companies award paid sick days after public pressure wins unions

US freight rail companies nearly sparked a national rail strike last fall by refusing to provide paid sick days, but in a surprise move welcomed by workers, those railroads recently provided paid sick days to nearly the half of its workforce.

After being roundly criticized for not offering paid sick days, the major rail companies (BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific) have given many of their 93,000 workers four paid sick days a year through labor negotiations, with the option to take three more days. paid sick days from personal days.

“We are very happy about this. We have been trying to achieve this for decades,” said Artie Maratea, president of the Transportation Communications Union. “It was public pressure and political pressure that brought them to the table.”

When Joe Biden and Congress enacted legislation in December that blocked a threatened freight rail strike, many workers angrily criticized Biden for failing to ensure that the legislation also guaranteed paid sick days. But since then, union officials say, members of the Biden administration, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who resigned on March 11, have lobbied the railroads, telling them to it was wrong not to grant paid sick days.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” said Greg Regan, chairman of the Department of Transportation Trades for the AFL-CIO, America’s leading labor federation. “This is being done the right way. Each railroad is negotiating with each of their individual unions on this.”

“The railway companies,” he added, “miscalculated about how the public would view their huge profits and the stories of how hard life was for railway workers and that they did not have sick days and the draconian policies they operated under.” .

For years, freight rail workers were not allowed to call in sick the morning of their shift. However, they could get approval weeks in advance to take paid personal days.

CSX was the first to award paid sick days to several of its unions and has now awarded sick days to 61% of its 17,089 union employees. Union officials praised CSX’s new CEO, Joseph Hinrichs, who used to head Ford Motor Company’s automotive division.

Hinrichs said that awarding paid sick days “is a continuation of the cooperative spirit that we are committed to following as we work together to enhance the work experience for employees, improve the safety of our operations and grow the business.”

Union Pacific has given sick days to 47% of its workers, Norfolk Southern 46% and BNSF, the largest freight railroad, 31%. At those companies, eight to 10 of their 12 unions have reached agreements.

But unions representing the workers who operate the trains on a day-to-day basis, such as the Brotherhood of Locomotive and Train Engineers, have been much less successful in reaching an agreement on paid sick days. “The railroads first went to the non-working vessels and settled with them,” said Mark Wallace, senior vice president of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “If a coachman [who inspects and repairs railcars] If you have to call in sick and don’t come to work, the train will continue to run. If the engineer or conductor has to call in sick, the train probably won’t leave that day.”

Wallace said his union is negotiating with the major railroads, but said they are trying to make it harder for operations workers than non-operations workers to take paid sick days, perhaps giving them demerits when they do.

Amy McBeth, a BNSF spokeswoman, said: “We now have agreements with eight of our twelve12 unions that provide paid sick days. Discussions are ongoing with the remaining four unions, including BMWE (Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees), and it is our intent to ultimately have paid sick day agreements that cover our entire scheduled workforce.”

Ron Kaminkow, a locomotive engineer and organizer with the activist group Railroad Workers United, applauded the progress on paid sick days, but added: “It’s a bit disingenuous that the railroads are suddenly being nice.” He said paid sick days decreased because “the American people found out about your massive share buybacks, your budget cuts and your staff cuts that likely played a role in the train accident in eastern Palestine.”[Ohio]That seriously damaged his image.[Ohio)whichbadlyhurttheirimage”[Ohio)whichbadlyhurttheirimage”

The White House has taken some of the credit for advances on paid sick days. When the first deals were announced, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the deals follow “the Biden administration’s continued advocacy and engagement.”

After CSX led the way, Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, and Senator Mike Braun, a Republican from Indiana, called on other railroads to grant paid sick days.

“At a time of record profits, that industry can and should guarantee at least seven paid sick days to every railroad worker in America,” Sanders said. “In the year 2023, that’s not too much to ask.”

Joseph McCartin, a Georgetown labor historian, said: “It’s a significant set of silent victories. It shows that having a pro-worker president really makes a difference.”

McCartin lamented that rail unions have made no progress in relaxing or dismantling “precision schedule rail,” a policy in which railroads have cut their workforce by more than 25% since 2016 to boost profits, which It creates stress and overwork for current employees. . “For people who expected the union’s sick day challenge to call into question some of the core functions of precision scheduled railroads, these victories aren’t changing that game at all,” McCartin said.

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