Union Members Balk at Time Off in Rail Contracts

Sick leave remains an issue as tentative agreements are voted on
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 13, 2022 4:55 PM CDT
Union Members Balk at Time Off in Rail Contracts
A freight train is seen Wednesday at a train station in Northbrook, Ill.   (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

The lack of some of the benefits most American workers can readily count on, like paid sick leave and regularly scheduled weekends, is driving some railroad workers to veto contracts that include significant raises and $5,000 bonuses. This week's vote by the third-largest railroad union against a tentative contract raised the possibility that a crippling nationwide strike could still happen, though the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division pledged to negotiate more before considering walking off the job. All 12 railroad unions must approve the contract to avoid a strike, the AP reports. Six smaller unions have approved their agreements with the major freight railroads after the National Conference of Firemen & Oilers ratified Thursday.

But the workers with the most concerns about demanding schedules that have them on call 24/7—engineers and conductors, nearly one-third of rail workers—won't vote until next month. The five-year deals include 24% raises, the biggest in more than four decades, and closely follow the recommendations of a special board of arbitrators appointed by President Biden this summer. However, those recommendations generally don't resolve workers' scheduling and workload concerns, especially as the major railroads have eliminated nearly one-third of their workers over the past six years. Railroads have been reluctant to agree to much more than that board recommended, though they did concede on three unpaid days off a year for engineers and conductors to tend to medical appointments as long as they give 30 days' notice.

Conductors and engineers have the worst schedules, which can lack weekends because railroads cannot predict exactly when trains will be ready to leave. Electricians, mechanics, and other employees based in a set location have more regular schedules, but they say their work has also become more demanding. Currently, rail employees can take days off for any reason, but those days are generally unpaid and workers might be docked under the attendance rules. And it's hard to to get paid leave or vacation days approved unless you plan far ahead, so that makes those leave days nearly impossible to use for a sick day. That's why some workers question the value of the one additional paid leave day these contracts include even though it would be the first improvement to that leave time since 1981. A Union Pacific engineer said he doesn’t think the unions are asking for too much. "We just want our pay to keep up with inflation and have the ability to take days off when we need them," he said. "I think that's totally reasonable."

(More freight train stories.)

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