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Biden signs bill to force labor agreement on rail workers, averting a legal rail strike

Unions representing over 56% of rail employees voted no to the agreement

A rail strike has been averted. (Photo: Shutterstock/RYosha)

On Friday, President Joe Biden signed into law an agreement that ends the chance for a legal rail strike. 

A strike would cost Americans an estimated $2 billion a day, potentially threatening manufacturing, agriculture, and even access to clean drinking water. 

Railroad workers now do not have the option to strike legally. They could stage a “wildcat” walkout, but their employers could legally replace them or receive an injunction from a federal judge to order striking laborers back to work.  

The Biden administration brokered this tentative agreement in September. After that, eight of the 12 rail unions voted to accept the agreement. Four did not, representing over 56% of unionized rail employees: 

  • The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (rejected Oct. 10, representing 23,900 workers). 
  • The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (rejected Oct. 26, representing 6,000 workers).
  • The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers (rejected Nov. 11, representing 500 workers).
  • SMART Transportation Division (rejected Nov. 21, representing 37,400 workers).

The tentative agreement provides average employee compensation and benefits of more than $160,000, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), which represents large rail employers. It provides a 24% wage increase over a five-year period from 2020 to 2024. It is the largest raise to rail workers in decades. 

However, it falls short of the unions’ central demand: paid sick leave. Currently, rail workers may have weeks of paid time off, but this cannot be used flexibly in the case of medical or family emergencies.

The Senate rejected a measure proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to include seven days of paid sick leave for rail workers by a vote of 52-43. Sixty votes were required to pass. The House of Representatives approved a separate bill on Wednesday to guarantee seven days of paid sick leave.

The legislation Biden signed into law does not include this sick leave.

He previously stated that he expected legislation to be on his desk by Saturday in order to prevent a potentially disastrous rail strike. 

A yearslong negotiation process for rail workers

Since January 2020, the nation’s major rail companies and its 12 rail unions have been in labor contract negotiations. These unions collectively represent some 115,000 workers at U.S. freight rails BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, Kansas City Southern and Union Pacific. 

Operating margins for the five largest U.S. railroads hit 41% in 2021, up from 29% 10 years ago, according to Bloomberg. During the first three quarters of 2022, the rail industry earned a record $21.2 billion in profits, according to a joint statement by a group of Democratic senators.

AAR said in a Monday news release that the average freight rail employee receives three weeks of paid vacation and up to 14 days of personal leave. 

However, rail employees say that it’s challenging to use this time off. One railroad, BNSF, had a policy earlier this year that penalized employees who refused to take a shift — even in the cases of medical or family emergencies. A representative said the railroad discontinued this policy in June.

The Class I railroads have struggled to keep railways staffed since the middle of 2020 after cutting thousands of jobs through the end of the 2010s and even more headcount during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, many rail employers have made it more challenging for workers to secure time off for health or family emergencies. 

The agreement fell short of union demands for 15 days of paid sick leave. It provided for one additional paid day off and three periods of medical care visits.

On Monday evening, Biden called upon Congress to act immediately to prevent a rail strike. Unions and lawmakers, liberal and conservative alike, slammed Biden, previously heralded as a pro-labor president. 

Are you a rail worker? Email [email protected]

Rachel Premack

Rachel Premack is the editorial director at FreightWaves. She writes the newsletter MODES. Her reporting on the logistics industry has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Vox, and additional digital and print media. She's also spoken about her work on PBS Newshour, ABC News, NBC News, NPR, and other major outlets. If you’d like to get in touch with Rachel, please email her at [email protected] or [email protected].