By Mark Gruenberg, PAI Staff Writer
WASHINGTON (PAI)—Giving in to pressure from Democratic President Joe Biden and corporate rail bosses, the Senate overwhelmingly imposed a 5-year contract on 115,000 unionized freight railroad workers—leaving out a critical provision for seven paid sick days. The contract, which a Biden board crafted and the House approved, came in legislation he will sign.
Biden said the issue of paid sick leave will be considered later. But that response, and the failure to insert the sick days into the contract, left workers and union leaders irate.
“Rail companies could do the right thing today and grant workers paid sick leave,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said just before the Senate’s rejection of paid sick leave, on Dec. 1.
“But they’ve refused, putting profits over people. That’s how we got here. Regardless of what happens … the fight for paid sick leave won’t end. Calling workers ‘essential’ one minute and treating them as dispensable the next is abhorrent. We join rail workers—and all America’s workers—in securing paid sick leave, fair scheduling, and the dignity and respect they deserve.”
Since “a majority of rank-and-file union members have declared” the pact “completely unsatisfactory, President Biden and Congress would be overriding the democratically expressed will of railroad workers,” said Railroad Workers United, a rank-and-file organization representing all rail crafts, in a statement.
“While the tentative agreement provides significant wage increases, workers stated clearly and repeatedly their fight is not just about money. Railroad workers are fighting for the right to live—and have a life—outside of work,” the statement continued.
“The freight rail industry is structured as a non-competitive oligopoly dominated by seven rail carriers and operates at the behest of Wall Street, prioritizing the maximization of profit for rail executives and shareholders, even if it comes at the expense of endangering the broader public and irreparably damaging the supply chain.”
“Unfortunately, threats to the economy have caused this Congress to believe a strike aversion is the best course for this nation,” said the Smart-Transportation Division, one of the three largest unions among the 12 the pact covers. Combined they have 115,000 members; Smart has about 20% of them.
“We implore” politicians “to not allow political pursuits or efforts to result in a scenario where we are forced to accept less than what is currently on the table … Our members want and need sick leave, but even more so, they need relief from the damning effects of operational changes made by the railroads over the last five years,” the STD said.
“This fight is not over,” the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, which includes the rail unions, tweeted after paid sick leave went down the drain—even though the House had passed it.
“The full might of America’s transportation labor movement will move this fight forward. Workers are united on this issue. We are millions strong. We will continue to pursue rail worker sick leave through every avenue available to us. And we will win,” TTD President Greg Regan vowed.
Biden argued lawmakers had to OK the contract now to prevent a forced strike by the workers starting at a minute after midnight on Dec. 9, when a mandated “cooling-off period” expired. Without it, he warned, much of U.S. commerce would halt, and the U.S. economy would take a big financial hit. He signed the measure Dec. 2, and held a press conference to explain why.
Lack of sick leave was the key, but not sole, hang-up that forced the administration to intervene in stalled rail talks earlier this year and work out the overall deal.
What neither Biden nor deal backers admitted is that working conditions, especially onerous work rules with no paid sick leave—not even for doctors’ appointments—were the main conflict between rail unions and their members and the big freight railroads.
The railroads adamantly refused to even discuss paid sick leave, much less negotiate about it. Biden, pleading the economic impact, pushed Congress, for the first time in decades, into overriding a collective bargaining agreement—one that four of the 12 unions rejected.
“Even as the need for worker protections and workplace flexibility have grown, railroad companies provide zero days of paid sick leave to their workers … If a rail worker comes down with Covid, the flu or some other illness and calls in sick, that worker will not only receive no pay, but will be penalized and, in some cases, fired. That is absolutely unacceptable,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, and 11 other senators said the day before.