The fierce negotiations that nearly shut down the country’s freight rail system last week hinged on a quality of life issue: furloughs for workers.
Railway workers nearly went on strike for paid sick leave. They lost their fight, but in the post-pandemic era, the question of how and when workers can take time off from their jobs is at the heart of several major labor negotiations.
At Delta, nearly 15,000 pilots threatened a work stoppage in part over disagreements over holidays and schedules before reaching a tentative agreement with the airline this week. At the University of California, where some 48,000 graduate students and researchers are on a contentious strike; workers pushed for — and won — major concessions from the university on its paid vacation and family leave policies.
More than 100,000 railway workers were days away from a likely strike after rail companies refused demands for five paid sick days. It took Congress to step in and force a deal to avert the strike, due to the unique labor laws that govern railroads and some other transportation workers.
Experts and labor organizers say the pandemic has shed light on the public health ramifications of in-person work, raising the importance of paid time off for workers in contract disputes.
“During the pandemic, people have seen what happens when someone comes to work sick,” said Rebecca Givan, associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. “It’s bad for them and bad for the colleagues.”
Many companies offer paid leave to employees, but the United States is one of the few countries in the world that does not require paid sick leave for workers – by some measures the only wealthy country not to do so. . Even the pandemic has failed to move the needle significantly in Washington, with Democrats’ efforts to create national sick leave and family leave programs failing early in Biden’s presidency, despite vocal support of certain companies.
At the University of California, where the nearly month-long massive strike disrupted nine campuses with more than 280,000 students, workers cited family leave as one of the motivating factors behind the contract disagreement, in addition low wages and high inflation.
The university agreed to increase workers’ leave – doubling parental leave from four to eight weeks and increasing other paid leave by one week – amid the strike.
Workers blame the strike on the concession, but say big loopholes remain on the strike’s main wage issue: wages for notoriously low-paying graduate student jobs.
“Winning real, legal, legally protected paid time off was huge for us,” said Tanzil Chowdhury, who holds a Ph.D. student and researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, who is among those still on strike.
Fights over furlough policies have sometimes taken a bitter turn as many companies, including Delta and most freight railroads, have posted record profits at various times during the pandemic.
The Brotherhood of Way Maintenance Employees, one of the railroad unions that voted against the deal, said it had capped the total cost of seven days of paid sick leave for the seven main freight rail companies at around $226-237 million per year in 2023 and 2024.
That estimate is based on the fact that workers use an average of four out of seven days a year, said union executive assistant Peter Kennedy. The seven Class I freight companies made more than $27 billion in operating profits in 2021, an average of about $4 billion per company.
A spokesman for the National Railroad Labor Conference, the group of rail companies negotiating with unions, did not dispute the earnings data but said its figures showed the cost of sick leave paid would have been around $400 million a year. Rail workers already have access to short-term leave programs that partially compensate them for longer illnesses.
“The railroads have consistently stated that they are willing to reach an agreement within the value of the compromise framework developed by the neutral PEB arbitrators,” said Brendan Branon, president of the National Railroad Labor Conference. , in a statement, adding that instead, the unions kept offering add-ons that increased the cost of the transaction. “That was the sticking point for the railroads.”
Following the resolution of the deadlock by Congress, activist investors have tabled proposals for two of the biggest railroads, Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern, to offer their workers paid sick leave next year.
“Union Pacific knows that quality of life issues are real and we are working with employees to make changes,” spokeswoman Robynn Tysver said in a statement Friday. “Employee feedback has driven recent progress in our attendance policy, and we are currently piloting a work-rest pilot project that we hope to learn from and implement more broadly.”
A Norfolk Southern spokesman declined to comment on the investor’s proposal.
During contract negotiations at Delta, the company recently agreed to increase maternity leave benefits to 10 weeks and provide two weeks of parental leave after pilots voted earlier to authorize a strike.
“We are pleased to have reached an agreement in principle for a new pilot contract, which recognizes our pilots’ contributions to Delta’s success,” company spokesman Benjamin P. Zhang said in a statement. “We appreciate the work of the negotiating teams and the mediator in reaching this agreement in principle.”
Other unions are paying attention to these fights and preparing to make sick leave an important part of their negotiations.
Brian Pollitt, president of the Transportation Workers Union Local 234, the largest union in the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), said he expects the issue to be one of his priorities in a new contract next year.
“We are middle class people,” he said. “Some of us can’t afford to miss a day.”
SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch said negotiations were due to start early next year before the October deadline, but declined to comment further.