Why America’s railroad operators refuse to give their workers paid leave

By | November 30, 2022

Eric Levitz writes:

For months, the world’s largest economy has been teetering on the brink of collapse because America’s latter-day robber barons can’t comprehend that workers sometimes get sick.

Or so the behavior of major U.S. rail companies seems to suggest.

Since last winter, railroad unions and the managers of America’s seven dominant freight-rail carriers have been struggling to come to an agreement on a new contract. The key points of contention in those talks have been scheduling in general and the provision of paid leave in particular. Unlike nearly 80 percent of U.S. laborers, railroad employees are not currently guaranteed a single paid sick day. Rather, if such workers wish to recuperate from an illness or make time to see a doctor about a nagging complaint, they need to use vacation time, which must be requested days in advance. In other words, if a worker wants to take time off to recover from the flu, they need to notify their employer of this days before actually catching the virus. Given that workers’ contracts do not include paid psychic benefits, this is a tall order.

When management refused to give ground on leave earlier this year, rail workers threatened to strike. If they went through with such a labor action, the rail workers would not merely erode their employers’ profits but also upend the broader U.S. economy. Rail lines remain key arteries of American commerce, carrying 40 percent of the nation’s annual freight. A single day without functioning freight rail would cost the U.S. economy an estimated $2 billion. And such costs could multiply overtime. When fertilizer goes undelivered, crop yields decline and the price of food rises. When retailers can’t access new goods shipments, shortages ensue, and so on.

Congress has long recognized the social costs of railway-labor disputes. In 1926, the federal government gave itself broad powers to impose labor settlements on the rail industry. In September, the Biden administration utilized such power to broker a tentative agreement between the leaders of a dozen unions and the railroads. Under that bargain, the companies agreed to a 24 percent pay increase by 2024, annual $1,000 bonuses, and a freeze on health-care costs. On the key point of leave, however, the railroads conceded only a single paid personal day, plus the removal of some disciplinary penalties for time missed as a result of a medical emergency.

When the deal was put to a vote before all members, four of the 12 unions declined to ratify the compromise. With multiple unions voting down the agreement — and others promising solidarity if their peers decide to walk off the job — the threat of an impending rail shutdown once again hangs over the U.S. economy. [Continue reading…]

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