US freight rail companies nearly spurred a nationwide railroad strike last fall by refusing to grant paid sick days, but in a surprise move welcomed by workers, those railroads have recently granted paid sick days to almost half their workforce.
After being roundly criticized for not offering paid sick days, the leading rail companies – BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific – have granted many of their 93,000 workers four paid sick days a year through labor negotiations, with an option of taking three more paid sick days from personal days.
“We’re very happy about this. We’ve been trying to get this for decades,” said Artie Maratea, president of the Transportation Communications Union. “It was public pressure and political pressure that got them to come to the table.”
When Joe Biden and Congress enacted legislation in December that blocked a threatened freight rail strike, many workers angrily faulted Biden for not ensuring that the legislation also guaranteed paid sick days. But since then, union officials says, members of the Biden administration, including Transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who stepped down on 11 March, lobbied the railroads, telling them it was wrong not to grant paid sick days.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” said Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, the main US labor federation. “This is being done the right way. Each railroad is negotiating with each of its individual unions on this.”
“The rail companies,” he added, “miscalculated about how the public would see their huge profits and the stories of how hard rail workers’ lives were and not having sick days and the draconian policies they were operating under.”
For years, freight rail workers weren’t allowed to call in sick the morning of their shift. They could, however, get approval weeks in advance to take paid personal days.
CSX was the first to grant paid sick days to several of its unions and has now granted sick days to 61% of its 17,089 unionized employees. Union officials praised CSX’s new CEO, Joseph Hinrichs, who used to head Ford Motor Company’s automotive division.
Hinrichs said granting paid sick days “is a continuation of the spirit of cooperation that we are committed to pursuing as we work together to improve the employee work experience, enhance the safety of our operations, and grow the business”.
Union Pacific has granted sick days to 47% of its workers, Norfolk Southern to 46%, and BNSF, the largest freight railroad, to 31%. At those companies, eight to 10 of their 12 unions have reached agreements.
But the unions representing workers who operate the trains day to day, such as the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, have had far less success reaching agreement on paid sick days. “The railroads went to the non-operating crafts first and cut a deal with them,” said Mark Wallace, first vice-president of the Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “If a carman [who inspects and repairs railcars] has to call in sick and doesn’t come to work, the train will still run. If the engineer or conductor has to call in sick, the train is probably not going to go that day.”
Wallace said his union is negotiating with the major railroads, but said they are seeking to make it harder for the operations workers than non-operational workers to take paid sick days – perhaps by giving them demerits when they do.
Amy McBeth, a BNSF spokeswoman, said: “We now have agreements with eight of our twelve12 unions providing for paid sick days. Discussions are ongoing with the remaining four unions, including BMWE (Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes), and it is our intention to ultimately have paid sick day agreements in place covering our entire scheduled workforce.”
Ron Kaminkow, a locomotive engineer and organizer at the activist group, Railroad Workers United, applauded the progress on paid sick days, but added: “It’s a little disingenuous for the railroads to suddenly make nice.” He said they eased up on paid sick days because “the American people learned about their massive stock buybacks, their budget cuts and the staffing cuts that probably played into the train wreck in East Palestine [Ohio), which badly hurt their image.”
The White House has taken some credit for the advances on paid sick days. When the first deals were announced, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the deals follow “continued advocacy and involvement from the Biden administration”.
After CSX led the way, Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, and Senator Mike Braun, Republican of Indiana, called on other railroads to grant paid sick days.
“At a time of record-breaking profits, that industry can and must guarantee at least seven paid sick days to every rail worker in America,” Sanders said. “In the year 2023, that is not a whole lot to ask.”
Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown, said: “It’s a significant set of quiet victories. It shows that it really makes a difference to have a pro-labor president.”
McCartin voiced regret that the rail unions hadn’t made progress on easing or dismantling “precision schedule railroading”, a policy in which the railroads have cut their workforce by over 25% since 2016 to boost profits, resulting in stress and overwork for current employees. “For people who hoped the union’s challenge on sick days would call into question some of the basic function of precision scheduled railroading, these victories aren’t changing that game at all,” McCartin said.
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