After years of negotiation through the collective bargaining process and a number of close calls with threatened labor strikes, President Biden on Friday signed into law a settlement of terms between railroad unions and railroad companies. The terms of the agreement are those recommended by the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), which were non-binding at the time and the result of mediated negotiations of all sides. Left out of the agreement is the addition of paid sick leave days.
The decision leaves all sides with some bad taste in their mouths, as unions were against the deal – with four of the 12 strongly voting to reject the deal. The major sticking point was the omission of additional paid sick days. On the other side of the equation, rail carriers would prefer that Congress and the President leave the issue to collective bargaining without interference. At the end of the day, the carriers were happier with the result than unions, as a separate bill that passed the House of Representatives did not advance in the Senate for the President’s signature. That separate bill was a stand alone companion bill adding seven days of sick leave.
The unions, while against intervention, supported this bill because they have long argued and negotiated for guaranteed paid sick days. Rail carriers, while against intervention, were happy to see the companion bill die in the Senate, as they had negotiated against such an inclusion in their contract terms, and sick leave was never a component of the Biden-negotiated PEB terms.
The question of paid sick leave is not as cut and dry as many media voices have portrayed. Some have even gone as far as simplifying the issue to the point of presenting an entirely false absolute. The reality is that some in the rail sector do have paid sick leave, while many do not have clear guaranteed sick days. Further nuance is that sick leave is broken down into different categories, with some using the term to reference taking a day off to recover from an unforeseen onset of the flu, while others use the term to reference longer-term time away, such as recovering from surgery or a chronic illness. There are also variations by craft and certain considerations for whether a worker maintains other availability when marking off days for illness.
Rail companies have long argued that it is the compromise position, resulting from rounds of collective bargaining, that no guaranteed sick days would be offered in exchange for highly competitive pay and additional personal and vacation days. While rail employees do have these favorable pay rates and access to upwards of two weeks of paid time off each year, the rank and file railroaders argue that access to these days is illusory.
With the introduction in recent years of Precision Railroad Scheduling, many workers contend that they are members of a quickly shrinking workforce and unable to use personal days in the way companies contend. For example, if a worker has the flu but no formal sick days, they must use personal or vacation time. But the function of these days is not like sick days. Sick days are a last-minute notice, while personal and vacation days are advanced and permission-based. So when a worker with the flu calls in, they are not telling their superior that they will not be in that day, but are instead requesting the day off. At which point, workers assert that superiors assess the number of personnel available that day of often deny the personal time or vacation request.
The new settlement – democratically rejected in vehement fashion by the four largest unions – which President Biden has now forced upon the industry does include terms that address the sick leave issue. The settlement comes with backpay bonuses, inflation-adjusted pay and significant raises for subsequent years, and an additional personal day. Certain terms also seek to address the sick leave-personal-vacation day issue by limiting penalty points for taking sick time.
While the terms are not what any one side would have selected with a magic wand, they do avert a nationwide railroad strike during one of the most critical times of the year. Not only would it be economically disruptive, but a strike during the winter months as cold threatens illness and death and energy supplies are at unprecedented lows, would have most likely had fatal consequences. The importance of the collective bargaining process remains critical. While this issue was settled by fiat, many others should remain to the process by which both sides hammer out their mutually agreeable terms together.
Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.