American freight railroads rejected a new sick leave proposal from a union of track maintenance workers who are threatening to strike in less than 30 days without a new labor agreement.
The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division announced last week that its rank-and-file membership had rejected a tentative labor agreement reached in September, setting the stage for a possible strike as soon as Nov. 19 if a new agreement cannot be reached.
BMWED proposed seven paid sick days — up to 56 hours a year — as part of a new contract agreement, which the railroads flatly rejected, according to Peter Kennedy, BMWED’s director of strategic coordination and research.
“It’s absolutely insane,” Kennedy said.
The National Railway Labor Conference, which represents the railroads, said the earlier tentative agreement voted down by BMWED rank-and-file members earlier this month was the “most generous pay package in nearly 50 years of national railroad bargaining.”
“BMWED management is asking for additional benefits and is threatening to strike, this time based on the easily disproved premise that union workers are not allowed to take sick leave,” read a statement from the NRLC.
If the union were to go on strike, other freight railroad unions are expected to honor their picket lines, bringing the nation’s major freight railroads to a standstill and halting the movement of an estimated 30% of the nation’s freight.
The railroad management’s statement said railroad unions have repeatedly agreed in past contracts that short-term absences would be unpaid in favor of higher compensation for days worked and more generous sick pay for longer absences. It said other railroad unions have ratified theirs deals with the existing sick day policy.
The union’s latest proposal was modeled after a sick leave policy for federal workers, Kennedy said. The paid sick leave would be accrued at one hour for every 30 hours worked. The railways could collect hours from the employees if they found out that the hours were not really being used for sick time.
“Members are very upset — they feel disenfranchised and undervalued by the railroads,” Kennedy said.
The negotiations are scheduled 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 rail strike. The airlines have informed the BMWED that their latest proposal will not be accepted,” the NRLC said in a statement.
The union said it wants to reach an agreement before time runs out — but “I have my doubts personally,” Kennedy said of a deal reached in time.
BMWED represents 23,000 railway workers – and is the third largest railway workers union.