Quality of life concerns weigh heavily on rail contract vote

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The lack of some perks that most American workers can easily count on, like paid sick days and regular weekends, is causing some railroad workers to veto contracts that include hefty raises and bonuses of $5,000.

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The lack of some perks that most American workers can easily count on, like paid sick days and regular weekends, is causing some railroad workers to veto contracts that include hefty raises and bonuses of $5,000.

This week’s vote by the railroad’s third-largest union against their contract has raised the possibility that a crippling national strike could still occur, even if the union in the division of employees of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of lanes pledged to negotiate further before considering quitting the job.

The 12 railway unions must approve the contract to avoid a strike. Six smaller railway unions have now approved their agreements with major freight railways after the National Fire and Tanker Conference ratified their agreement on Thursday.

But the workers most concerned about demanding schedules that require them to be available 24/7 – engineers and conductors, nearly a third of railway workers – will not vote until next month.

Ultimately, Congress can step in to block a strike and impose a contract if the two parties cannot reach an agreement.

The five-year agreements include increases of 24%, which are the largest in more than four decades, and closely follow the recommendations of a special board of arbitrators appointed by President Joe Biden this summer. However, these recommendations generally do not solve workers’ scheduling and workload problems, especially since the major railroads have eliminated nearly a third of their workers in the past six years. The railways have been reluctant to offer much more than the board recommended, although they have agreed to give engineers and conductors three unpaid days off a year to attend to medical appointments at provided they give 30 days notice.

Conductors and engineers clearly have the worst schedules that can miss weekends because the railways cannot predict exactly when trains will be ready to depart and because trains run 24 hours a day. Electricians, mechanics and other location-based employees work more regular hours, but they say their jobs have also become more demanding.

Currently, railroad employees can take days off for any reason, but these days are generally unpaid and workers can be tied up under railroad attendance rules. And it’s hard to get paid time off or vacation days approved unless workers plan well in advance and have the seniority to get them, which makes those kinds of days off nearly impossible. to use for a sick day. That’s why some workers question the value of the extra paid day off offered by these contracts, even though it would be the first improvement to that time off since 1981.

« When I go to take them (personal days off), every time without fail: ‘Oh, the supply from the crew doesn’t meet the demand. We deny it. You have to try to plan them in advance – in advance. So you can’t use them for your sick leave, » said Paul Lindsey, a longtime Union Pacific engineer based in Pocatello, Idaho, who is active with the Railroad Workers United group that makes campaign against the proposed contracts.

Electrician Shelly Nunemaker wants the BNSF to relax strict engineer and driver attendance rules before these are imposed on her job, and she says the railroad should provide paid sick leave.

« They’re going to have to get this stuff under control before it gets worse and before it trickles down to us, because eventually there’s going to be nobody to fix these choo-choos that people need to drive, » said Nunemaker, who wanted to vote « no » on the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers contract but said she never received a ballot. This leads him to question the validity of this vote because several colleagues would not have obtained ballots either.

The strict attendance policies that some rail companies use and which accrue points for some employees when they are absent from work for almost any reason have been a major concern for unions this year, as workers can be sanctioned after losing all their points. The railroads maintain that these systems are necessary to ensure they have enough crew available, and they say the systems give workers the ability to take a few days off as long as they manage their points.

The Association of American Railroads trade group notes that railroad workers have sickness benefits that kick in after a four- or seven-day waiting period, and unions have actually traded some paid sick days in the years 1970 to get better short-term disability benefits. But unions say the pandemic — when the railroads temporarily offered paid time off for COVID absences — has highlighted the need for paid sick leave.

Lane maintenance worker Matt Mortensen said when his three boys were younger he had to use most of his vacation time to care for sick children. Then, if he took vacation, it had to be unpaid leave.

« For me, it’s weird to work for a company that’s so profitable and has no sick days, » said Mortensen, who worked for BNSF for 17 years in the Kansas City area and voted not on the BMWED contract.

Scheduling and holiday issues have increasingly become top concerns in negotiations in the wake of the pandemic, but the issues are rarely as glaring as they are on the railroads. Victor Chen, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the railways’ focus on a lean operating model that relies on fewer, longer trains with fewer locomotives and fewer employees has « made once-good jobs excruciatingly bad ».

« Over the years, they have laid off workers en masse while expecting those who remain to do much more, » said Chen, a sociologist who studies labor issues. “They have imposed extremely unpredictable schedules because it means they can get the best out of every worker. They implemented insane attendance policies that would never fly in white collar workplaces.

Working conditions on the railways have even caught the attention of key policy makers. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi condemned all of the job cuts when she spoke at the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen convention this week in Las Vegas.

« Railroad companies make obscene profits on the backs of their workers, » Pelosi said. « You shouldn’t be fired for staying home when you get sick. »

Lindsey, the Union Pacific engineer, said he didn’t think the unions were asking too much.

« We just want our pay to keep up with inflation and have the flexibility to take days off when we need them, » he said. « I think that’s quite reasonable. »

Josh Funk, Associated Press


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