A White House official said President Biden was personally briefed on the matter on Tuesday morning, after he called on Monday to pressure carriers and unions to accept a deal. Senior officials in the White House lead daily meetings with the Department of Agriculture, Department of Transportation, Department of Energy and other top agencies on how to mitigate the impact. In particular, Biden assistants are working to ensure that dangerous goods transported by rail are safely transported without harming workers. The White House is also working on potential officials to mitigate any damage but has not made any comments. The White House’s planning was revealed by multiple people with knowledge of the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity to reveal the internal planning.
At issue is a contract agreement between rail carriers and two associations representing 57,000 conductors and engineers on their participation policies. The federally mandated “calm down” period ends on Friday, opening up the possibility of a strike if employees refuse to go to work, or a lockout if carriers don’t allow workers to do their jobs.
Some freight carriers have started limiting services, suspension of dangerous goods shipments and park trains that look like lockout preparations. Amtrak, which carries passengers on freight lines, has canceled some of its flights. long distance routes Monday.
Biden appointed an emergency board in July to mediate the dispute after two years of negotiations between the six largest freight carriers and 12 unions representing rail workers. Nine unions reached tentative agreements with carriers based on the board’s recommendations, leaving the two largest unions without a deal. A smaller union, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, struck a tentative deal with the carriers Monday night and returned to the bargaining table.
Labor officials from both unions said contract negotiations between the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainers, the SMART Department of Transport and the rail carriers regarding Zoom continued until late on Monday before the parties reached an agreement.
The top issues delaying a deal are some of the biggest carriers’ points-based attendance policies, which penalize workers up to and including layoffs for going on routine doctor’s visits or attending family emergencies. Chefs and engineers say they don’t get a single paid or unpaid sick day.
The National Carriers Conference Committee, which represents railroads in the negotiations, denied that workers received sick time and said the ability to set engagement policies is essential to ensure adequate train operators are ready to work during labor shortages.
“You may have heard from workers that they don’t take sick days or paid leave. This is false,” said Jessica Kahanek, spokesperson for the American Railroad Association, noting that some workers support sick leave benefits and can take time off for any reason as long as they maintain a reasonable level of general availability as part of carrier participation policies.
While unions say they have diluted some of their offers and rejected requests for paid sick days, they are adamant that members be allowed to attend routine medical appointments without jeopardizing their employment. They said they were willing to accept a contract that addressed these concerns and were prepared to strike if the carriers did not compromise on it. The two unions said as of Tuesday morning, the carriers had not made any proposals against this proposal.
BNSF and Union Pacific, two of the largest rail carriers operating predominantly in the western United States, are companies with points-based participation policies. More than 700 BNSF employees have left since it implemented a points-based policy in February. Even in a family emergency, workers can be fired if their points run out. Missing work on certain high-impact days or planning ahead for a single doctor’s visit can result in employees losing half or more of their allocated points.
“They refused to accept our offers,” said Dennis Pierce, president of the Locomotive Engineers and Trenci Fellowship, one of the two unions in negotiations. “The average American doesn’t know we got fired for going to the doctor. That’s what pisses our members off the most. We have guys punished for taking time off for heart attacks and covid. It’s inhumane.”
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