Rail Workers Missed Their Biggest Goal—Paid Leave

Biden signs measure to avert crippling strike, and unions lose a key fight
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 2, 2022 1:00 PM CST
No Rail Strike Means No Paid Leave, Either
President Biden signs a bill to avert a rail strike Friday at the White House.   (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

President Biden on Friday signed an emergency measure to prevent a potentially crippling railway strike amid the holidays. He did so after Congress, exercising special authority, voted to impose a contract settlement between the railroads and its unions, reports the AP. On the bright side for rail workers, the deal includes their biggest pay raise in decades—but it also fails to give them paid sick days, "the issue workers cared most about," per the Washington Post. As the Hill notes, the Senate on Thursday voted on a measure that would have given the workers seven paid sick days a year, but the bill failed to get enough Republican support to reach the necessary 60-vote threshold and failed 52-43.

Supporters such as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren pushed the measure as one of fairness. "This multibillion-dollar industry ... has made money hand over fist and continues to treat workers like they are just widgets to be moved around," Warren said before the vote. The rail industry, however, countered that it would be "wholly irresponsible" for Congress to get so heavily involved in the particulars of the contract impasse, and GOP senators agreed. "I just think it's a bad idea for Congress to try to intervene and renegotiate these collective bargaining agreements between labor and management," said GOP Sen. John Cornyn. Rail workers who need time off for sickness will take it from their personal or vacation time.

At New York, Eric Levitz writes that the industry's opposition to paid sick leave boils down to PSR, or "precision-scheduled railroading." It refers to the industry's goal of being as efficient as possible. "Already understaffed and underperforming, the railroads cannot allow unanticipated absences to become significantly more prevalent without either pulling back from PSR or suffering even more frequent disruptions and customer complaints," he writes. Levitz argues that the industry giants are flush with cash and could afford to give workers paid leave and to hire additional staff to make up for any gaps in service. In the long run, this might even make them "more resilient against disruptions," he argues. The railroads, however, say higher wages and strong disability benefits make up for the lack of paid leave. (More railroad stories.)

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