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Rail unions look to next contract talks as Biden signs agreement

Sick leave remains an issue for some workers and unions are eager to start talks for 2025

President Joe Biden signs a resolution to avert a nationwide rail shutdown Friday in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
President Joe Biden signs a resolution to avert a nationwide rail shutdown Friday in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)

Even as President Joe Biden was signing a congressional resolution imposing a strike-averting rail labor agreement Friday, unions opposed to the deal over sick leave provisions were strategizing for the next bargaining session.

Biden’s stamp of approval ends a yearslong collective bargaining process among 12 rail unions, which came to a head in September when negotiations came to a standstill. The Biden administration created a Presidential Emergency Board that on Sept. 15 crafted a contract proposal agreed to by rail companies and eight of 12 rail unions. That contract would be enacted with a congressional resolution cleared by the Senate on Thursday and signed by Biden on Friday.

The resolution makes a strike a federal offense and is to remain in effect until the unions’ next contract talks in two years.

“This one-two punch from the two political parties is despicable,” Jason Doering, general secretary of interunion caucus Railroad Workers United, said in a statement. “Politicians are happy to voice platitudes and heap praise upon us for our heroism throughout the pandemic, the essential nature of our work, the difficult and dangerous and demanding conditions of our jobs. Yet when the steel hits the rail, they back the powerful and wealthy Class One rail carriers every time.”

The newly enacted contract allows workers one annual “paid personal day” and three periods off for medical visits annually. Those visits can only occur on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday and have to be scheduled at least 30 days in advance.  

The four unions that voted down the agreement said their members are disappointed by Biden and Democrats who ran on pro-union platforms, especially as the Senate came close to adopting a separate resolution that would have provided seven days of additional paid sick leave. Although Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., was the only Democrat to vote against the sick leave resolution, it did not receive the 60 votes required for adoption.

Longtime issue

According to Clark Ballew, spokesperson for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters — one of the four unions against the contract — rail workers have been subject to little time off or sick leave since the inception of railways.

Many don’t receive federal holidays like Veterans Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day off, he said, and the enacted agreement doesn’t provide guaranteed sick days, despite the safety risks it puts on workers who are required to work through illness.

“If you go to work sick, and your attention lapses, you make a mistake, a bad call of judgment, because you feel terrible that day from a cold or fever or flu, you could get run over by a train,” Ballew said. “You could have a piece of track fall on you or a gas tank for welding explode, which happened to two of our members just last month.”

In recent years, the industry has instituted labor streamlining procedures to reduce its workforce, shedding nearly 30 percent of its employees, according to the Surface Transportation Board.

The changes are aimed at improving rail efficiency, carriers argue, but workers argue it provides little wiggle room for time off.

The companies “have boxed themselves in so badly on workforce manpower that the employees that have actually stuck around, they work them basically every day,” Ballew added. “These guys have no personal life. It strains marriages. … It takes two to run a household these days, but if you work on the railroad, good luck with that.”

Union Pacific spokesperson Robynn Tysver said the company recognized that recruiting and retaining talent is “highly important” and has reached its goal of adding 1,400 employees over the past year. “With yesterday’s vote, we need to come back as one Union Pacific and work together to address quality-of-life concerns,” she added. 

Ian Jefferies, CEO of industry trade group Association of American Railroads, said in a statement that the agreement includes “historic wage increases, best-in-class healthcare, and meaningful progress in creating more predictable, scheduled work shifts.” The industry group holds that the agreement provides for “multiple options for time off,” including an average of 25 to 29 days of paid time off, depending upon specific jobs.

The imposed contract will end in 2024, but unions can begin the bargaining process with carriers before then. Ballew said he could see the next round of bargaining beginning as soon as early 2023. “And we’re coming after [Veterans Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day] next round,” he said of holidays they aim to add.

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