A huge rail strike looms as unions fight for sick leave

A showdown between freight rail carriers and their labor unions could shut down the US rail system if the two sides cannot reach an agreement by Friday, which would spell a disruption with broader economic and political repercussions.

A dozen unions representing more than 100,000 workers are trying to negotiate new contracts with major rail carriers, including Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific and CSX. While most have reached a tentative agreement with the industry, the two major unions still haven’t come to an agreement, and another union said Wednesday that its membership had voted to reject them.

The deadline for reaching an agreement is midnight on Friday morning. Failure to do so may result in many possible consequences.

Workers could go on strike, shutting down the goods rail system; Rail companies can throw workers out of their jobs, achieving the same practical effect; Congress can impose terms of the contract on both parties whether they like it or not; Or the time limit can be extended.

The impact of the shutdown could be so severe that President Joe Biden is urging carriers and unions to reach a settlement as soon as possible, and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh was meeting with both sides on Wednesday morning in hopes of a work halt. ,

“The closure of our freight rail system is an unacceptable consequence for our economy and the American people, and all parties must work to avoid it,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.

What is the dispute about?

A collective bargaining agreement has several moving parts during negotiation: wages, health care coverage, retirement benefits, paid leave, work rules, and more. Those pieces may be in flux with each other until an agreement is reached, but unions say the disagreement on this point is mainly over vacation and scheduling policies.

Unions say employees could end up on call for up to 14 days at a time and face stringent attendance requirements — including losing their jobs to go to the doctor or care for sick children.

“Our members are being terminated for being sick or attending routine medical visits.”

– Union Smart and BLET

In a joint statement, the two unions at the center of the fight, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), called the rail carrier’s policies. The amount of “harassment”.

“Punishing engineers and conductors for being sick or going on a doctor’s visit should be stopped as part of this contractual agreement,” he said. “Let us repeat this: Our members are being terminated for getting sick or attending routine medical visits as we exit the pandemic around the world.”

Unions say workers have been pushed to the brink and will reject any deal that does not improve on this front. They point to employee shortages in the industry as evidence that employers are squeezing too much out of the workforce.

According to the Federal Surface Transportation Board, the major carriers are 29% reduction in staff Over the six years, the board of directors stated that in many cases “the railroads do not have a sufficient number of employees.”

How did we get this close to rail shutdown?

Due to the effect of a work stoppage on transport and commerce, railway workers are covered by a separate labor laws compared to most other private sector workers. Before workers can legally go on strike or be fired from their jobs, both parties must go through several stages. It is probably a testament to the desperation of the workers that the dispute has reached so far.

After failing to reach an agreement, Union Alliance and Railroad Industry Group, National Railway Labor Conference, went through months of mediation with federal authorities. It did not end in a deal, and both sides began a legally required month-long “cooling off” period. After that, Biden called together an emergency board to try to end the controversy.

The board held a hearing and made its recommendations in August, including: 24% increment During the five years, which the Rail Group called, there will be “the highest wage increase in decades”. But the unions who have protested said that the board made a mistake on the issue of leave and attendance, making the unions unwilling to accept the package.

After another legally required cooling-off period ends on Friday morning, a work stoppage will be on the table. BLET union members told the Labor Notes publication they were planning start picket line Friday morning at 12:01 if they don’t have a contract. But it is also possible that rail carriers themselves may take the initiative to stop work by kicking workers out of their jobs to take advantage of the negotiations.

What will be the effect of the shutdown?

We are already seeing some effects. Amtrak announced Wednesday that it is canceling long-distance passenger trains starting Thursday, mainly outside the busy Northeast Corridor. Passenger trains will be affected as they often use track Operated by freight companies. Other transit agencies have warned that the bandh could harm them as well.

Many freight companies started limited service Earlier this week, banning certain types of shipments several days before the deadline. The companies said the idea was to ensure that hazardous materials were not eliminated in the event of a halt to work, but unions criticized the move as a ploy to put political pressure on workers.

“The railroads are using our nation’s shippers, consumers, and supply chains as pawns in an effort to get us [unions] Smart and BLET said in a statement, knowing that our members will never accept them, to meet their contractual demands.

“It is possible that rail carriers themselves may initiate a stoppage of work by kicking workers out of their jobs to gain leverage.”

The White House has been plan to lay To keep important things moving in the event of no agreement between the two parties. The impasse has left the Biden administration in a difficult political spot: the administration does not want to stop a task that could damage the economy and drive more inflation, but union allies will be furious if Biden, self-proclaimed “most pro-union president“anytime, helped push them to an unsatisfactory deal.

Both sides may agree to extend the deadline beyond Friday morning to buy more time for talks. It is also theoretically possible that Congress intervenes and forces carriers and unions to adopt the Presidential Board’s contractual recommendations, an outcome that would have affected carriers. like bnsf would seem pleased.

Republicans in the Senate maneuvered to accomplish this through a resolution Wednesday, but they were blocked By the Chamber’s most famous union supporter, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Speaking on the Senate floor, Sanders called the rail carrier a “reactionary policy” of “denying sick leave to workers.”

“This means that if you get sick as a worker, if your child gets sick, if your spouse gets sick and you need to take time off from work, not only will you not get paid. You can actually get fired,” Sanders said. “How crazy is that?”

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