The U.S. freight railroads involved in collective bargaining with the rail labor unions have panned the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division’s counteroffer for a new labor agreement.
“Now is not the time to introduce new demands that rekindle the prospect of a railroad strike,” said the National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC), the group representing the freight railroads in contract negotiations, late Wednesday.
Six other unions have already ratified their agreements, the NCCC said.
The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED) announced on Oct. 10 that more than 56% of its membership voted against ratifying the tentative national agreement that it had reached with the Class I freight railroads on Sept. 11. The deal included a 24% wage increase, $5,000 bonuses and an additional paid day off.
NCCC said the latest BMWED request for additional benefits is similar to a proposal that had been considered but rejected by the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB). The PEB was a three-person independent group appointed by President Joe Biden over the summer to work with the railroads and the unions on finding ways to resolve the labor contract impasse. The railroads and unions have been negotiating over a new contract since January 2020.
NCCC said Wednesday the initial tentative agreement also included “significant increases for travel expenses” that BMWED requested as well as “the most generous wage package in almost 50 years of national rail negotiations.” Rail carriers’ representatives also maintain that BMWED leadership initially hailed the tentative deal.
“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 disproved premise that union workers are not allowed to take sick leave,” NCCC said. “The health, safety, and well being of rail employees is a top priority for all railroads. Rail employees can and do take time off for sickness and have comprehensive paid sickness benefits starting, in the case of BMWED-represented employees, after four days of absence and lasting up to 52 weeks.
“The structure of these benefits is a function of decades of bargaining where unions, including BMWED, have repeatedly agreed that short-term absences would be unpaid in favor of higher compensation for days worked and more generous sickness benefits for longer absences.”
In response to NCCC’s statement, BMWED told FreightWaves that the sick leave it has from the railroads is misleading. The union likened it to short-term disability benefits that become available only after seven days of an inability to work.
“The railroads consistently underestimate the frustration and anger of the workers. The Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) ruling is just a recommendation. It is not a lid. Carriers have made the determination of not doing more than the net equivalent of the PEB,” BMWED said in a statement provided to FreightWaves. “The railroads have made billions off of their workers. These are incredibly skilled jobs where sophisticated pieces of equipment are used. The workers do not feel valued.”
The union continued, “Workers need to be able to take off when they are sick. Under the present policy workers are penalized. Railroad executives are so deep into their own bubbles they think all of this is ok.”
BMWED urged members Tuesday to lobby their congressional representatives to push for paid sick leave that would be offered at comparable levels to federal contractors. Railroad workers were considered essential employees during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, so they should have access to sick leave policies similar to those of federal contractors, the union argues.
“Provision of paid sick leave to employees has become a norm in this society. Not only are federal contractors obliged to provide it, but many states and municipalities require employers to provide paid sick leave to their employees. But the railroads have persuaded courts that such state and municipal laws are federally preempted,” BMWED said. “Given the railroads’ resistance to these legal requirements, BMWED has sought to obtain equivalent rights by agreement.”
BMWED and the railroads have until Nov. 14 to negotiate a new labor agreement, although BMWED must wait five days before taking any action because Congress is reconvening. After Nov. 19, the union could go on strike.
In response to a question about the contract negotiation between the railroads and BMWED, Union Pacific President and CEO Lance Fritz said the disagreement might be related to wages and travel compensation connected to traveling to and from work sites.
“As the members were ratifying the vote, there was a section of [the deal] that they really didn’t have clarity to,” Fritz told investors Thursday during UP’s third-quarter 2022 earnings call. “We think that clarity makes that vote more straightforward.”
Fritz also remains confident that the agreements will be ratified, avoiding a potential strike.
BMWED, which is affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, represents about 26,000 workers who build and maintain the tracks, bridges, buildings and other structures on railroads across the country.
Correction: An earlier version of this article says BMWED could go on strike after Nov. 14. The date should be after Nov. 19, barring an extension of the status quo. FreightWaves regrets the error.