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A Massive Rail Strike Looms As Unions Fight For Sick Leave

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A showdown between freight rail carriers and their staff’ unions could shut down the U.S. rail system if the 2 sides can’t reach an agreement by Friday, which might create a disruption with vast economic and political repercussions.

A dozen unions representing greater than 100,000 staff have been attempting to negotiate recent contracts with the main rail carriers, including Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific and CSX. While most have reached a tentative cope with the industry, two major unions still haven’t come to an agreement, and one other union said Wednesday that its membership had voted to reject theirs.

The deadline to achieve an accord is midnight Friday morning. Failing that, there are several possible outcomes.

The employees could go on strike, shutting down the freight rail system; the rail corporations could lock the employees out of their jobs, achieving the identical practical effect; Congress could impose contract terms on either side whether or not they prefer it or not; or the deadline may very well be prolonged.

The impact of a shutdown may very well be so severe that President Joe Biden has been urging the carriers and the unions to achieve a compromise as soon as possible, and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh was meeting with either side on Wednesday morning in hopes of averting a piece stoppage.

“A shutdown of our freight rail system is an unacceptable consequence for our economy and the American people, and all parties must work to avoid just that,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.

What’s the dispute about?

A collective bargaining agreement has many moving parts to it during negotiations: wages, health care coverage, retirement advantages, paid leave, work rules and more. Those pieces can all be in flux with each other until the moment a deal is reached, however the unions say the disagreement at this point is primarily over leave and scheduling policies.

The unions say staff can find yourself on call for as much as 14 days at a time and face draconian attendance requirements — including losing their jobs for going to the doctor or tending to sick children.

“Our members are being terminated for getting sick or for attending routine medical visits.”

– The unions SMART and BLET

In a joint statement, two of the unions at the middle of the fight, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Staff (SMART) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), said the rail carriers’ policies amounted to “harassment.”

“Penalizing engineers and conductors for getting sick or going to a health care provider’s visit with termination should be stopped as a part of this contract settlement,” they said. “Allow us to repeat that: our members are being terminated for getting sick or for attending routine medical visits as we crawl our way out of worldwide pandemic.”

The unions insist staff have been pushed to the brink and would reject any deal that didn’t make improvements on this front. They point to staffing reductions within the industry as evidence that the employers are squeezing an excessive amount of out of the workforce.

In accordance with the federal Surface Transportation Board, major carriers have slashed staffing by 29% over six years, leading the board’s director to say that in lots of cases “the railroads simply would not have a sufficient variety of employees.”

How did we get this near a rail shutdown?

Due to impact a piece stoppage would have on transportation and commerce, railway staff are covered by a different labor law than most other private-sector staff. Either side must undergo several steps before staff can legally go on strike or be locked out from their jobs. It’s likely a testament to staff’ frustration that the dispute has gotten this far.

After failing to achieve an agreement, the union coalitions and the rail industry group, the National Railway Labor Conference, went through months of mediation with federal officials. That didn’t end in a deal, either, and the 2 sides began a legally required month-long “cooling off” period. After that, Biden called together an emergency board to attempt to bring an end to the dispute.

The board conducted hearings and in August made its recommendations, including a 24% wage increase over the course of 5 years, which the rail group said can be “essentially the most substantial wage increase in a long time.” However the unions which have held out said the board erred on the leave and attendance issue, leaving the unions unwilling to simply accept the package.

Once one other legally required cooling-off period ends on Friday morning, a piece stoppage can be on the table. BLET union members told the publication Labor Notes that they plan to start a picket line at 12:01 a.m. Friday morning in the event that they don’t have a contract. However it’s also possible that the rail carriers themselves initiate the work stoppage by locking the employees out of their jobs to realize leverage within the negotiations.

What would the consequences of a shutdown be?

We’re already seeing among the effects. Amtrak announced Wednesday that it was canceling long-distance passenger trains starting Thursday, primarily outside the busy Northeast Corridor. Passenger trains can be affected because they often use tracks run by freight corporations. Other transit agencies have warned that they may very well be hurt by a shutdown as well.

Several of the freight corporations began limiting service earlier this week, putting embargoes on certain forms of shipments several days before the deadline. The businesses said the thought was to make certain hazardous materials don’t find yourself abandoned within the event of a piece stoppage, however the unions criticized the move as a ploy to place political pressure on the employees.

“The railroads are using shippers, consumers, and the availability chain of our nation as pawns in an effort to get our [unions] to cave into their contract demands knowing that our members would never accept them,” SMART and BLET said in an announcement.

“It’s possible that the rail carriers themselves initiate the work stoppage by locking the employees out of their jobs to realize leverage.”

The White House has been laying plans to maintain critical goods moving within the event the 2 sides can’t reach a deal. The standoff has left the Biden administration in a tricky political spot: the administration doesn’t need a work stoppage that might hurt the economy and spur more inflation, but union allies can be furious if Biden, the self-declared “most pro-union president” ever, helped push them into an unsatisfactory deal.

Either side might comply with extend the deadline beyond Friday morning to purchase more time to barter. It’s also theoretically possible that Congress intervenes and compels the carriers and the unions to adopt the presidential board’s contract recommendations, an consequence that carriers like BNSF would look like pleased with.

Republicans within the Senate maneuvered Wednesday to perform that through a resolution, but they were blocked by the chamber’s best-known union supporter, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Speaking on the Senate floor, Sanders hammered the rail carriers for having what he called a “reactionary policy” of “denying staff sick leave.”

“What meaning is for those who as a employee get sick, in case your child gets sick, in case your spouse gets sick and it’s essential take break day of labor, not only will you not receives a commission, you really could get fired,” Sanders said. “How crazy is that?”

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