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Sick Day Dispute Revives Risk of a Major U.S. Railway Strike

railway

Published Oct 20, 2022 10:57 PM by The Maritime Executive

A disagreement over sick leave is threatening to disrupt a bargain between America's major rail lines and railroad unions, derailing hopes of a long-sought contract agreement.

Last week, members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED) voted down the labor deal that carriers and unions negotiated in an all-night bargaining session last month. The vote means that the union's track repair workers could go out on strike as early as November 19.

The White House-brokered deal had raised hopes that the unions and rail carriers had resolved a key sticking point - a points-based employee attendance policy that had the effect of preventing unpaid medical leave, according to the union coalition. The hard-won agreement offered union members access to unpaid time off for "routine and preventive medical care, as well as exemptions from attendance policies for hospitalizations and surgical procedures." 

The two largest rail unions in the U.S. have agreed to the deal, but  BMWED's members voted down the plan. The union is now calling for up to 56 hours of paid sick leave per year, in line with standards for federal contractors. The National Railway Labor Conference - the bargaining association for rail employers - is not interested in the sick day pay proposal, BMWED strategic director Peter Kennedy told CNN. 

A labor action by BMWED could take down a substantial share of U.S. rail freight. It is the third-largest rail union in the U.S., and its fellow unions could also down tools in solidarity in the event of a strike. If that were to occur, a rail shutdown could disrupt up to 40 percent of the nation's freight and impose economic costs of about $2 billion per day. 

The White House has legal authority to order unions and carriers to go back to work while negotiations proceed. However, even a brief interruption could have serious repercussions for a logistics system that is still recovering from the surge of post-COVID cargo congestion. The rail carriers have signaled that they would likely begin shutting down service days ahead of any planned strike and would prioritize hazmat cargo movements, in line with the contingency plan they implemented in September. That would back up lower-priority cargoes like containerized import goods at the nation's top seaports, which are heavily reliant on intermodal rail to move freight to inland markets.