Reported by Joanna Marsh for Freightwaves.
Negotiations between U.S. Class I railroads and unions representing operating craft employees, such as locomotive engineers and train conductors, regarding sick leave and scheduling will likely last through summer, according to Jeremy Ferguson, president for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division (SMART-TD).
The unions and the railroads have been charged to hash out scheduling issues at the local level or the property level, as opposed to the national level. The Presidential Emergency Board, a three-person committee that had been appointed by President Joe Biden to help the railroads and the unions push through an impasse in national contract negotiations last summer, affirmed this course of action last year.
The sick leave agreements are voluntary offerings, according to Ferguson, whose union represents train conductors.
But the issue garnered national attention last fall, with the unions threatening to strike if the railroads failed to address sick leave in a way that was acceptable to the unions. The freight railroads countered last fall that the railroads do offer sick leave to union members.
As the railroads and the remaining unions that have yet to reach sick leave agreements continue to negotiate, union negotiators “want it to be right,” Ferguson told FreightWaves.
“They don’t want all the strings attached that some of the carriers are trying to put on,” he said. That includes not connecting sick leave with the company attendance policy so that employees don’t get points deducted from their attendance record for taking a sick day, Ferguson said.
Sick leave agreements have been announced piecemeal by the Class I railroads and some of the rail unions in recent weeks. The most recent ones have included BNSF’s (NYSE: BRK.B) agreement with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the International Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, Norfolk Southern’s (NYSE: NSC) sick leave agreement with the Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen, and CSX’s (NASDAQ: CSX) agreement with the mechanical division of SMART.
BNSF said Thursday that nine of 12 labor unions have paid sick leave agreements, while NS said on April 17 that it had reached such agreements with eight unions. NS also said it had sick leave benefits for two other unions agreed upon during past negotiations.
While the sick leave agreements might vary among the unions and the railroads, they generally call for a certain number of sick days plus the opportunity to convert a certain number of personal leave days into sick days, according to news releases describing agreements.
Meanwhile, the issue of scheduling those who run the train — the conductors and locomotive engineers — is still on the table for some properties. The unions are seeking predictable time off for these employees, according to Ferguson.
The scheduling issue is part of the crew consist issue; the question about crew consists and which crew members will be in the locomotive cab is part of a broader debate on whether the government should regulate train crew size. NS and Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) have indicated that they will keep the conductor in the locomotive cab for now instead of transitioning that role to a ground-based position.
But the specifics are still being hammered out and discussions are ongoing, according to Ferguson. Negotiations are also still occurring between the unions and BNSF on crew consists, he said. The responsibilities of brakemen and switchmen as part of the scheduling issue have also been debated, according to a copy obtained by FreightWaves of one of the drafts between SMART-TD and certain UP territories.
“Crew consists, crew scheduling, and attendance policies are all issues that are tied into the paid sick leave conversations for those two unions. … Generally, the railroads have asked for concessions from the unions as part of proposed paid sick leave agreements and those concessions have been a sticking point. Railroads need to make good faith efforts for progress to be made,” the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) told FreightWaves. TTD is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
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