Quality of life concerns weigh on rail deal vote

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The lack of some benefits most American workers can readily rely on, such as paid sick leave and regularly scheduled weekends, is driving some railroad workers to ban contracts that offer hefty raises and $5,000 salaries. include bonuses.

The vote by the third-biggest rail union this week against its contract raised the possibility that a crippling nationwide strike could still ensue, although the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division union has pledged to negotiate more before considering the to quit the job.

All 12 railway unions must agree to the contract to avoid a strike. Six smaller railroad unions have now approved their agreements with the big rail haulers after the National Conference of Firemen & Oilers ratified their agreement on Thursday.

But the workers most concerned about demanding schedules they have 24/7 on call – engineers and conductors, nearly a third of rail workers – won’t vote until next month.

Ultimately, Congress can step in to block a strike and enforce a treaty if the two sides cannot reach an agreement.

The five-year deals include 24% pay rises, the biggest in more than four decades, and closely follow the recommendations of a special arbitration panel appointed by President Joe Biden this summer. However, these recommendations generally do not resolve concerns about worker scheduling and workloads, especially as major railroads have laid off nearly a third of their workers in the last six years. The railroads were reluctant to offer much more than the board recommended, although they agreed to give engineers and conductors three unpaid days a year to attend to medical appointments, as long as they give 30 days’ notice.

Conductors and engineers clearly have the worst schedules that weekends can miss because railroads can’t accurately predict when trains will be ready to depart and because trains run 24 hours a day. The electricians, mechanics and other employees at a fixed location have more regular working hours, but they say their jobs have also become more demanding.

FILE – A BNSF locomotive heads south from Oklahoma City on Wednesday, September 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, file)

Currently railway employees can take time off for any reason, but these days are generally unpaid and workers can be docked according to the railway’s attendance rules. And it’s difficult to approve paid vacation or paid vacation days unless workers plan well in advance and have the seniority to back them up, making those types of vacation days almost impossible to use for a sick day. Because of this, some workers question the value of the one extra day of paid vacation that these contracts offer, even though it would be the first improvement in that vacation time since 1981.

“When I take them (personal vacation days), every time I’m infallible: ‘Oh, the supply of staff doesn’t match the demand. We deny it.’ You have to try to plan them in advance – in advance. So you can’t use these for your sick days,” said Paul Lindsey, a longtime Union Pacific engineer based in Pocatello, Idaho, who is active with the Railroad Workers United group, which opposes the proposed contracts.

Electrician Shelly Nunemaker wants the BNSF to relax the strict attendance rules engineers and conductors work under before they could be imposed for their job, and says the railways should provide paid sick leave.

“They need to get a handle on something like this before it gets any worse and before it leaks out to us, because eventually there’s going to be nobody to fix these choo-choos that people have to drive around,” he told Nunemaker, who is associated with ” Wanted to vote no” to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers contract but said she never received a ballot. That leaves them questioning the validity of that vote, as several employees allegedly didn’t get ballots either.

The strict attendance policies some railroads apply, which remove certain employees’ points for missing work for almost any reason, has been a major concern for unions this year, as workers can be disciplined after losing all of their points. The railroads claim these systems are needed to ensure they have enough crews on hand, and they say the systems give workers the flexibility to take a few days off as long as they manage their points.

The Association of American Railroads trade group notes that railroad workers receive some sick leave benefits that take effect after a waiting period of four or seven days, and unions actually traded some paid sick leave for better short-term disability benefits in the 1970s . But unions say the pandemic — as railroads temporarily offered paid leave for COVID-related absences — has highlighted the need for paid sick leave.

Track attendant Matt Mortensen said that when his three sons were younger, he spent most of his vacation time looking after sick children. If he then took leave, it had to be unpaid leave.

“It’s weird for me to work for a company that’s so profitable and has no sick days,” said Mortensen, who has worked for BNSF in the Kansas City area for 17 years and voted no to the BMWED contract.

All major railroads have reported sizeable profits, and BNSF said it made just over $3 billion in the first half of this year.

Scheduling and free time issues have increasingly become key negotiation issues in the wake of the pandemic, but rarely are the issues as glaring as they are with railroads. Victor Chen, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the railroads’ intense focus on a lean operating model that relies on fewer, longer trains with fewer locomotives and employees has “made formerly good jobs terribly bad.”

“Over the years, they’ve laid workers off in droves while expecting a lot more from those who stay,” said Chen, a sociologist who studies labor issues. “They have imposed schedules that are absolutely unpredictable because it allows them to get more out of each worker. They implemented insane attendance policies that would never work in office workplaces.”

Working conditions on railways have caught the attention of even top politicians. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi condemned the entire job cuts while speaking at the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen convention in Las Vegas this week.

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

“We just want our salary to keep up with inflation and have the ability to take days off when we need them,” he said. “I think that’s perfectly reasonable.”

https://www.wane.com/news/national-world/quality-of-life-concerns-weigh-heavily-on-rail-contract-vote/ Quality of life concerns weigh on rail deal vote

Dais Johnston

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