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Sick Time a Sticking Point in Rocky Rail Talks

Negotiations appear to be heading off the rails once again for the railroad union whose membership rejected a tentative agreement with carriers earlier this month as the group now pushes for more paid sick time. 

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED) said earlier this month 56.1 percent of its voting members were against ratifying the new labor contract with carriers.  

The union agreed not to immediately strike as it went back to the negotiating table with carriers until Nov. 14. The earliest a strike could occur would be Nov. 19. 

The two sides appear locked in disagreement once again, raising the very real possibility of a rail strike

BMWED urged its members this week to write their local elected officials to push for 56 hours of paid sick time, which is the amount allotted to federal contractors. The designation, the union argues, was given to railroad employees during the pandemic. Thus, rail workers should be allotted the same paid sick time, it said. 

The union said members rejected the tentative deal because it fell short of those benefits, with president Tony Cardwell saying the vote’s results indicated low employee morale. 

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“As you are likely aware, we are amid a contract dispute with the railroads. Of particular importance is the lack of paid sick time off for rail employees,” read a boilerplate letter the union provided to members when contacting their local representatives. “We were able to secure one additional paid personal day in the tentative national agreement; this is the first increase in paid time off that we have secured since 1981.” 

The National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC), which is negotiating on behalf of the more than 30 railroads involved in the collective bargaining process, criticized the latest move by the BMWED. 

The NCCC brought up BMWED leadership’s initial support of the tentative deal struck with carriers last month. 

“Now, following an unsuccessful initial membership ratification process, BMWED leadership is asking for additional benefits and threatening to strike, this time based on the easily disproven premise that union workers are not allowed to take sick leave,” the NCCC said in a statement Wednesday. 

The NCCC said employees do receive sick pay with benefits kicking in after four days in which an employee is out. The group went on to point out the current benefits are the result of “decades of bargaining” agreed to by the unions.  

“Now is not the time to introduce new demands that rekindle the prospect of a railroad strike,” the NCCC said. “The carriers have advised BMWED that its latest proposal will not be accepted.” 

BMWED is one of a dozen unions, representing nearly 125,000 workers, in the current negotiations, which began in 2020. 

The union is one of the larger groups involved in talks. It counts 23,900 employees, which is 19 percent of the total number of workers involved in this current round of negotiations. 

The drawn-out collective bargaining process forced President Biden to establish the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) in the summer in the hopes that the board could help resolve the dispute between employers and workers. 

The PEB released a report in August with various recommendations for the collective 12 unions, along with individual proposals for each group. Those PEB proposals formed the basis of the tentative deals struck with the unions. 

At the top of those recommendations was a 24 percent compounded increase in wages for the 2020 through 2024 contract, in addition to $5,000 total in annual bonuses. 

The increase, which reflected middle ground between what employers and the unions were proposing, represents the largest pay hike for railroad workers in more than three decades. 

However, it was the issue over paid time off that became a sticking point for holdout unions that raised concerns the nation was headed toward a national rail shutdown last month. Those unions ultimately forged last minute tentative deals just hours ahead of the looming deadline, but they’ve yet to go before a vote over ratification by members. 

Six unions, to date, have ratified their agreements.