Railroad workers could leave the industry after Congress forced a contract that grants them no paid sick leave, an exodus that would ripple through an economy dependent on freight railroads to move goods.
The exit of thousands of train drivers and engineers would be felt by big business and American consumers alike. It could slow the delivery of food, fuel and online orders while strangling already fragile supply chains.
The economy was nearly turned upside down by a nationwide strike before lawmakers stepped in last week to enforce a deal many workers said was insufficient.
Those holding out hope for a strong contract could seek new employment after the deal failed to provide paid sick leave or end strict attendance policies and hectic schedules that require workers to be constantly on duty. on call, say the railway workers.
“I don’t think you’ll just see half the workforce disappear, but you’ll see a good percentage, and we can’t afford to leave because we’re so understaffed,” Hugh said. Sawyer. , an Atlanta-based engineer at Norfolk Southern.
Any exodus of workers would only exacerbate staff shortages caused by the railways which have laid off around 30% of their workforce over the past six years. This, in turn, led to burnt-out workers and persistent delays and cancellations when demand for shipped products increased.
Business groups have warned that the disruptions, which are due to staff shortages, have helped fuel inflation.
Sawyer, who is treasurer of grassroots railroad reform group Railroad Workers United, said young workers who put more emphasis on work-life balance will be the first to go.
“Most of these people live in or around metro Atlanta. The economy is booming. They will find employment elsewhere,” Sawyer said.
Workers say some employees could leave as soon as they receive back wages and cash bonuses, which will average about $16,000 per person. The railways will distribute this money within 60 days.
The Association of American Railroads (AAR) said in a statement that carriers hear workers’ concerns and agree that “conversations about work-life balance issues must continue.” The industry group said railway train and locomotive workforces had increased by 8% since January.
“Benefits and severance are part of the reason this is the case – both of which are seeing historic increases through this deal with average wages and compensation reaching $160,000 over the course of the contract,” a doorman said. -word of the AAR. “The railroad is hard work, and our employees are compensated accordingly in recognition of that.”
The contract signed into law on Friday, negotiated with the help of the Biden administration, includes increases of 24% over five years and allows workers to take three days of unpaid leave for medical appointments, a provision that was not not included in previous proposals.
But it doesn’t offer paid sick leave, adjust schedules or remove attendance policies that penalize workers who miss the time to attend family gatherings or other scheduled events.
“They talk about the money in this contract. It’s just not worth having to give up what these people have to give up,” said Jeff Kurtz, a Railroad Workers United member who worked as a locomotive engineer in Iowa for 40 years.
Kurtz said railroad workers might take less money to work in factories or trucking jobs that offer consistent hours and are always hiring.
Last week, Congress canceled four unions that failed to ratify agreements with the railroads. These include train and locomotive workers at SMART-TD, the railroad’s largest union, which rejected the tentative contract last month.
Unions lobbied lawmakers to add seven days of paid sick leave to the deal, while the railroads pushed back, arguing Congress would set a dangerous precedent by changing the contract.
The House passed the sick leave measure with the support of all Democrats and three Republicans. Only six GOP senators voted for the proposal, dooming its chances in the upper house. Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) was the only Democrat to vote against.
“The senators who opposed the measure all have paid sick leave, as do their staff. Apparently they think the country’s railroad workers are ‘essential’ to the US economy and supply chain, but not enough to deserve the same protection as them when they get sick,” SMART-TD said in a press release after the vote.
Union officials have sought to keep hope alive by assuring workers they are still pushing for paid sick leave. This could take the form of another legislative effort or an executive order that requires federal contractors, including railroads, to provide paid sick days.
During the signing of the bill, President Biden said he would continue to fight for paid sick leave, but did not elaborate on how he would go about it.
“It’s a really good bill that’s only missing one thing, and we’re going to get that thing done before it’s all over,” Biden said.
And on Monday, activist investors filed proposals calling for Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific to provide paid sick leave, arguing that companies must provide the edge to stay competitive and keep workers safe.
“Focusing on the short term at the expense of workers presents potential risks to the business and the economy,” Kate Monahan, who leads shareholder advocacy at Trillium Asset Management, said in a statement. “As shareholders, we are calling on management to reprioritize and take a longer-term view that protecting the health and safety of their workers will better position them for the future.”
Paid sick leave would be a major consolation prize for railroad workers who are fed up with a system they say allows railroad executives to ignore their grievances.
The railroads and unions engaged in tenuous negotiations for more than three years and stalled until a Biden-appointed panel issued contract recommendations in July.
As workers in other essential industries have taken part in a wave of strikes this year, railroad unions must overcome a series of congressionally authorized hurdles that are explicitly designed to make a walkout difficult, if not impossible, by removing a key source of leverage. This system will not change anytime soon.
“The federal government entered the dispute between the railroads and the railroad workers on the premise that it must protect the American economy. Yet when the federal government makes this decision, its officials have a moral responsibility to also protect the interests of the citizens who make this nation’s economy work – America’s railroad workers,” said Tony Cardwell, President of the Brotherhood of Maintenance Division. of Way Employees. in a report.
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