Railroad carriers were able to avoid the issue of paid sick leave in the deal Congress struck to avert a nationwide rail strike late last year, but the pressure is back on in Washington, D.C.
Freight rail companies were put on notice this week to offer comprehensive sick time for their union workers or they will find themselves testifying before the Senate.
In a joint press conference, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, and Senator Mike Braun (R-Ind.) a member of the committee, demanded railroad carriers offer workers at least seven paid sick days. Sanders mentioned the record profits of the railroad carriers and urged the companies to “do the right thing.”
“If they [the carriers] don’t [offer comprehensive sick time], I look forward to having them right here in his Senate committee room and ask them why they cannot afford the right thing for their workers,” Sanders said. “At the end of the day, in 2023, it is not acceptable to have workers that do dangerous work not to get one sick day.”
Braun and Sanders were joined by representatives from major rail unions SMART-TD, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, and the National Association of Chemical Distributors.
Sanders’ office said in a statement that rails spent 184% more on returns to shareholders than workers’ wages and benefits. It estimated that guaranteeing seven paid sick days to rail workers would cost the industry $321 million, which would be less than 1.2% of its profits in a single year.
One rail, CSX, agreed this week to a deal on paid sick leave with two unions — the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and Brotherhood of Railway Carmen (BRC) — for workers to have over seven paid sick days.
“CSX is committed to listening to our railroaders and working with their representatives to find solutions that improve their quality of life and experience as employees,” Joe Hinrichs, president and chief executive officer of CSX, said in a statement. “These agreements demonstrate that commitment and are a direct result of the collaborative relationship we are working to cultivate with all of the unions that represent CSX employees.”
On Friday, another union, IAM District 19 and its IAM Rail Division, reached an agreement with CSX that provides paid sick leave for approximately 700 mechanical employees — four paid sick days annually and the ability to convert up to an additional three personal days into sick days. Unused paid sick time will be contributed to the employees’ 401(k) account, or can be paid out at the end of each calendar year, according to the union.
“We’re going to continue to wage this battle across the industry to win this critical benefit for all freight rail workers,” said IAM International President Robert Martinez Jr.
In a tweet earlier this week, Sanders applauded the CSX agreement, but had stern words for the rest of the rail companies. “l have news for the industry,” warned Sanders. “If they think that those [Senate members] who voted for seven days sick pay that they forgot, they got it wrong. We will not forget.”
To avert the nationwide rail strike last November, Congress approved legislation that did not include paid sick leave, which had been one of the main sticking points in the breakdown between rail management and unions over a new deal, even though it offered the highest wage increase in 50 years and bonus payments.
Sanders had presented an amendment to guarantee paid sick days to rail workers in the days before the railroad labor members would walk off the job after members voted against ratification. A House amendment that guaranteed comprehensive sick leave passed the House but failed in the Senate. After the vote, Sanders and more than 70 members sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging his administration to take action to guarantee paid sick days for rail workers.
President Biden signed the Congressional bill to avert the rail strike, given the threat to the economy. The failed vote on paid sick leave led union leaders to remind politicians that votes have election consequences.
The White House has been quietly putting pressure on rail companies to reach agreement on the issue this year. On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters in response to the CSX deal, “These agreements came following continued advocacy and involvement from the Biden administration, pushing railroad leadership to reach an agreement that secured paid sick leave for workers, which continues to be a priority for President Biden.”
President Biden’s State of the Union Address Tuesday night was seen as a preview of a potential reelection campaign messaging strategy centered on the economic gains he has secured for working class Americans.
“We need the six other railroads to step up and do what CSX did,” Tony Cardwell, president of BMWED/IBT, told CNBC. “CSX set a precedent and boldness to push this forward. I see this as the proverbial hole in the dam. The CEO had the guts to do this. Efforts by some of the legislators helped with this as well. We give Sanders a ton of credit because he didn’t let this die off and the railroads are grateful for his efforts.”
Cardwell said he is hopeful the railroads will do the right thing, but said the discussions are not going as smoothly as the union would like. BMWED has been speaking with Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, and BNSF, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway.
“The railroads go out to the media saying they want to work with us, but they come to the table and offer controlling agreements where employees still can’t call in sick,” Cardwell said. “They are asking for quid pro quo on life issues. They want us to give up something or take away items we have agreed on in exchange for sick time. It’s not reasonable. This is about dignity and respect. These workers are crucial to the infrastructure.”
In a written statement to CNBC, Association of American Railroads (AAR) President and CEO Ian Jefferies said the agreement “is a clear demonstration that the bargaining process works and that voluntary agreements between railroads and their unions are the best outcome.”
Jeffries added that rail employees have multiple options for time off and, for those employees who operate trains, the agreements included enhanced abilities to schedule time off.
“That said, railroads understand that more works remains regarding quality of life and scheduling predictability concerns by employees and have been in active discussions with their unions about how these matters are best addressed,” Jefferies added.
This story has been updated to include an additional union deal struck by CSX on Friday.