Rail strike negotiations stalled by battle over sick leave policies

The top union negotiator in talks to avert a railroad strike has accused the BNSF and Union Pacific of stalling progress.

Specifically, Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, or BLET, said the companies rejected the union’s proposal for sick leave policies.

“The main resistance comes from the Union Pacific and the BNSF because of the attendance policies they have that have treated workers so badly,” Pierce told CNBC. “We are simply looking to take time off work to resolve our medical issues. Union Pacific and BNSF attendance policies assess our members’ (penalty) points when they simply want time off for their appointments. you regular medicals.”

Attendance policies have been a point of contention for unions for years. The White House Presidential Emergency Board, or PEB, has recommended that any disputes over attendance policy be best resolved through the grievance and arbitration process.

BNSF, which is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, flatly rejected Pierce’s claim, calling it “categorically untrue”.

“Railway employees enjoy a significant amount of vacation time. Typically, train crew employees have over three to four weeks of paid vacation and over 10 days of personal time off. Depending on the trade and the seniority, these numbers can be up to five weeks of vacation in addition to 14 paid vacations and/or paid days off,” BNSF told CNBC. “The number of personal leave days has been increased by 25% this year, making it easier for employees to take time off.”

A BNSF train near Boulder, Co.

David A Grogan | CNBC

Union Pacific, meanwhile, said it ‘continues to push for an early resolution that delivers historic wage increases to employees and enables the railroads to prevent further disruption to the ailing supply chain. “.

Pierce said the unions withdrew their proposal for paid sick leave and replaced their demand with unpaid sick leave. The PEB recommendations suggested that unions withdraw their proposal for paid sick leave based on existing paid leave granted to employees.

Union negotiators offered the rail carriers a one-page unilateral proposal to spare employees disciplinary points if they pre-scheduled routine medical visits on days they would otherwise have to work, according to Pierce.

“You have to understand that these workers are unscheduled. They don’t have scheduled days off. They work whenever they’re called,” he said. “We’re just asking that our workers be able to pick up their medical appointment and not have to be at work that day.”

The Association of American Railroads, in turn, provided CNBC with its employee leave policy sheet.

“The ongoing negotiations are collectively managed on a national, multi-employer basis,” said a spokesperson for the group.

No retreat

Pierce praised some elements of the PEB recommendations, but said it didn’t materialize when it came to quality-of-life issues.

“Life is unplanned, medical events are unplanned. People need to be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor instead of just being at work every day,” he said. “So I think the key issue is this and there’s no way we can get away from it.”

Pierce said he was in contact with members of President Joe Biden’s cabinet. He told CNBC that the unions have no intention of blinking an eye on the sick leave argument.

“Strikes are a last resort. It doesn’t help anyone because employees are losing money and companies are losing money,” he said. “We are not here to harm the economy.”

The ripple effects of the labor dispute affect other parts of the infrastructure. Starting Tuesday, Amtrak canceled some of its long-distance rail services in anticipation of a service disruption.

Routes between Chicago and the West Coast along Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, California Zephyr and Empire Builder are canceled. Portions of Amtrak’s Texas Eagle route between Los Angeles and San Antonio are also suspended. Amtrak calls the cancellations a “gradual adjustment” warning that the disruptions could “significantly impact intercity rail service”.

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