US freight railroads have rejected a new sick leave proposal from a union of track maintenance workers that threatens to go on strike in less than 30 days without a new labor agreement.
The Brotherhood of Way Employees Division announced last week that its rank-and-file members had rejected a tentative work agreement reached in September, paving the way for a possible strike as early as November 19 if a new agreement does not can be concluded.
BMWED offered seven paid sick days — up to 56 hours a year — as part of a new contractual arrangement, which the railroads flatly rejected, according to Peter Kennedy, director of strategic coordination and research at BMWED.
“That’s totally silly,” Kennedy said.
The National Railroad Labor Conference, which represents the railroads, said the previous tentative agreement that rank-and-file BMWED members rejected earlier this month was “the most generous wage package in almost 50 years of national rail negotiations”.
“BMWED management is demanding additional benefits and threatening to strike, this time based on the easily rebuttable premise that unionized workers are not allowed to take sick leave,” an NRLC statement read.
Should the union go on strike, other freight railway unions are expected to respect their picket lines, shutting down major freight railways across the country and halting the movement of ‘about 30% of the country’s freight.
The statement from the railways management indicates that railway unions have repeatedly agreed in past contracts that short-term absences will not be compensated in favor of higher compensation for days worked and more generous sickness benefits for longer absences. He said other railway unions have ratified their agreements with the existing sick leave policy.
The union’s most recent proposal was modeled after a sick leave policy for federal workers, Kennedy said. Paid sick leave would be accrued at the rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked. The railways could claw back employee hours if they discovered the hours weren’t actually being used for sick leave.
“Members are very upset — they feel disenfranchised and undervalued by the railroads,” Kennedy said.
Negotiations are expected to resume within the next two weeks. Both sides issue warnings.
“Now is not the time to introduce new demands that revive the prospect of a railway strike. The carriers have informed BMWED that its latest proposal will not be accepted,” NRLC said in a statement.
The union has said it wants to reach a deal before time runs out – but “I personally have my doubts,” Kennedy said of a deal being struck on time.
BMWED represents 23,000 railway workers and is the third largest union of railway workers.