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Bernie Sanders Attacks ‘Record-Breaking’ Rail Profits in Paid Sick-Time Plea

The first domino has fallen in a labor battle over paid sick leave that nearly gridlocked the railroad industry that narrowly swerved a nationwide strike last fall.

One of the largest freight railroads in the U.S., CSX, announced it struck deals with four unions to provide employees with four days of paid sick leave annually, plus the option of converting three personal days into additional paid sick time. With the agreements, CSX becomes the first major U.S. railroad to offer the perk to some of its unionized employees.

Approximately 4,000 track-maintenance workers in the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED) and another 1,000 mechanical workers in the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen (BRC) were the first to okay with agreements with CSX on Tuesday.

Three days later, the railroad reached agreements with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), which represents railroad machinists, and the National Conference of Firemen and Oilers (NCFO), which represents the company’s utility workers.

Unused paid sick time will be contributed to the employees’ 401(k) account, or paid out at the end of each calendar year.

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“CSX is committed to listening to our railroaders and working with their representatives to find solutions that improve their quality of life and experience as employees,” said Joe Hinrichs, president and CEO of CSX, in a statement after the BMWED and BRC deals. “These agreements demonstrate that commitment and are a direct result of the collaborative relationship we are working to cultivate with all of the unions that represent CSX employees.”

Hinrichs later said after the second round of agreements, “We have a great respect for the work [our employees] do in service to our customers and the nation, and we will continue to partner with them and their representatives to ensure they have the best possible employment experience with our railroad.”

Paid sick leave and grueling work schedules have been central to the country’s roughly 115,000 rail workers’ plight in their ongoing contract dispute with their employers, the railway operators.

But as strike threats grew, President Joe Biden signed a law forcing the workers to accept tentative agreements that were already rejected by four of the 12 unions negotiating with the railroads—effectively averting the strike. All of the rejecting unions cited the lack of paid sick time as a factor in snubbing the deals.

Most of the contract’s concessions follow the recommendations of the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) that Biden appointed last summer to help resolve the contract dispute that began nearly three years ago.

The current five-year contract that Biden signed into law is retroactive to 2020, and includes 24 percent compounded wage increases—the largest such wage hikes in 50 years—and an added $5,000 in bonuses, but did not include the unions’ demand for paid sick leave. In rail, workers must get approval far in advance for the paid personal days they take. Employees usually can’t call in sick the morning ahead of their shift.

The administration pressured both sides to reach agreements before the initial Sept. 16 strike deadline because of concerns about how a strike would devastate the U.S. economy.

In December, the Senate voted to reject a bipartisan House-approved proposal that would give rail workers seven paid sick days, falling eight votes short of the 60 votes needed to pass.

Sen. Sanders takes major railroads to task

On Thursday, rail labor representatives joined Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) at a press conference in Washington D.C. to demand that rail companies give workers at least seven paid sick days.

Braun and Sanders were joined by representatives from major rail unions including BMWED, the SMART-Transportation Division, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS), the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department (TTD) and the National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD).

“Railroad workers deserve better treatment than they are getting from the railroads right now when they get sick, and they need time off when they’re sick,” said Vince Verna, vice president and national legislative representative, BLET, at the press conference. “Right now, employees know they better not get sick. If you do, you’ll be subject to harsh attendance policies that do not allow you to take off sick without fear of reprisal…The railroad CEOs would never work under the conditions they require of their employees when making them choose between their jobs and their health…Let’s make sure America’s freight gets moved by workers who are not sick on the job. Let’s get this fixed.”

In a letter to CEOs of six other major North American railroad companies, including Canadian Pacific Railway, Canadian National Railway, Kansas City Southern, BNSF Railway, Union Pacific Railroad and Norfolk Southern Corp., Sanders urged them to follow CSX’s lead.

“Last year, the companies you lead made over $22 billion in profits,” Sanders wrote in the letter. “While you claim it is too expensive to provide paid sick days to your workers, the companies you run spent over $20 billion, not to make the rail industry safer or to improve working conditions, but on stock buybacks and dividends to make your wealthy shareholders even richer—some $5 billion more than you spent on your workers. Meanwhile, after eliminating 30 percent of your workforce over the last six years, the six of you made over $175 million in total compensation over a three-year period.”

The former presidential candidate estimates that guaranteeing seven paid sick days to rail workers would cost the industry just $321 million—less than 1.2 percent of the industry’s annual profits.

“The nearly 120,000 railroad workers employed by your companies are vital to the well-being of
our country. They make sure that our seniors get life-saving medications, our families get fuel to
heat their homes in the winter, and our children have food on the table at dinnertime,” Sanders said. “Your workers made it possible for the railroad industry to make record-breaking profits and enabled you to receive exorbitant compensation packages. And rail workers have done all of this without a single day of guaranteed paid sick leave.”

Sanders called out the railroad companies’ use of precision scheduled railroading (PSR)—a strategy designed so that trains operate on fixed schedules, much like passenger trains, instead of being dispatched whenever a sufficient number of loaded cars is available. PSR was initially implemented to both reduce dwell times and transit times and cut overall supply chain costs.

The outspoken pro-labor politician echoed the sentiment of many unions, saying PSR was “pushed by many of your hedge fund investors on Wall Street” and “has led to a workforce stretched too thin, putting railroad workers at undue risk for serious injury and sickness.”

The ongoing fight for paid sick leave comes amid other labor stalemates across the national supply chain. West Coast dockworkers across 29 ports are still working without a contract as negotiations for 22,000 employees have raged on since the previous contract expired July 1. On the East and Gulf Coasts, dockworkers have begun initial contract talks nearly 18 months ahead of their September 2024 expiration date. Meanwhile, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters said last August it would begin a year-long campaign in the lead up to negotiations for 350,000 UPS workers whose contract is set to expire July 31, 2023.