U.S. railroad companies and unions reached a tentative deal early Thursday, temporarily averting a potential catastrophic $2 billion per day supply chain interruption.
“After 20 straight hours in the latest round of talks — which included President Joe Biden and other administration officials — the companies and union negotiators sealed a preliminary agreement balancing the needs of workers, businesses and the economy,” Bloomberg News reported.
The deal was announced less than 24 hours before Friday’s deadline that would have seen 115,000 rail workers walk off the job, impacting “critical infrastructure that transports about 40% of all long-haul cargo in the US and threatening a fresh wave of supply chain chaos,” Bloomberg reported.
“Our rail system is integral to our supply chain, and a disruption would have had catastrophic impacts on industries, travelers and families across the country,” the State Department said.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the International Association of Sheet Metal Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, representing approximately 60,000 workers, said the tentative deal was possible after receiving concessions from company owners to address worker concerns regarding time off for medical purposes.
Paid time off is “punishingly limited” and a serious bone of contention with workers who receive one week of PTO after one year of service, two weeks following year two, three weeks after eight weeks in the industry, and four weeks after 17 years of service, railroad employee Charles Stallworth wrote in an opinion piece for Newsweek magazine.
“To understand why this isn’t nearly enough, you have to understand the hours: I’m often on the railroad for 13, 14 hours straight, often through the night,” he said. “I’m on call 24/7, often with two hours to get to work if called. If I need a day off to go to a doctor’s appointment or kid’s game, I have to use PTO, but it can be denied if they really need me that day. And they have instituted a point system to discourage taking unpaid days when you run out of PTO days, which of course, we all end up having to do, what with working so many hours. Too many points off and you get disciplined, and finally terminated.”
Particulars of the agreement have not been shared but union officials will send it to the general membership for a vote, extending the cooling-off period by several weeks in hopes of ratification.
At this point, rank-and-file members hold the power and have shown a willingness to “buck leadership,” Bloomberg reported.
The Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen voted on September 12 not to send an earlier agreement to the general membership for a vote, as did the machinist union, as members were adamantly against earlier concessions.
“We often have to make impossible choices, between parenting our kids and hoarding PTOs for emergencies,” Stallworth said. “It all results in many problems at home and it’s a huge hit to our mental health. The companies have made any kind of work/life balance impossible.”
But PTO isn’t the only sticking point, according to Stallworth, and it is unclear whether the tentative agreement reached Thursday will compel workers to vote in favor.
“In the last few years, the railroad companies have mounted an assault on labor, costing livelihoods and sacrificing worker safety to a point where we just can’t go on,” he said.
Pointing to the adoption of “positive train control,” essentially autopilot for trains, and the subsequent removal of conductors from service, railroads have reduced staffing by 29 percent, while increasing the length of trains to nearly 10,000 feet, Stallworth said.
“We’re all overworked,” he said. “On issue after issue, safety has become secondary, but the trains still need to be moved.”
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