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Rail workers never stopped fighting for paid sick days. Now persistence is paying off

Paid sick leave became a central issue in the freight rail labor dispute last fall. Two months after Congress imposed a contract without sick leave, the topic has been reopened.
Mario Tama
Getty Images
Paid sick leave became a central issue in the freight rail labor dispute last fall. Two months after Congress imposed a contract without sick leave, the topic has been reopened.

It seemed like a done deal just two months ago.

Rail workers had brought the country to the brink of a nationwide rail shutdown over the fact that they didn't have paid sick leave - and wouldn't get any in the contract they were negotiating with their bosses, the massive freight railroad companies. But then, Congress stepped in to end the impasse. Strike averted.

Through a bipartisan vote, lawmakers imposed a contract that gave workers a substantial raise but no paid sick days.

In rail yards across the country, workers felt deflated — and defeated.

"Here is America's essential workers — rail workers. We have no paid sick days," said Matthew Weaver, a railroad carpenter in Toledo, Ohio, just after the vote. "It's disgusting."

Fast forward to this week.

One of the largest freight railroads in the world, CSX, announced a deal with two rail unions, including Weaver's, to provide four days of paid sick leave annually, plus the option of converting three personal days into additional paid sick time.

"It's very exciting. It's a good faith effort to show that we're essential employees rather than expendable," Weaver said this week. "It gives me hope."

How CSX became the first freight railroad to offer paid sick leave

What CSX has agreed to so far only covers about 5,000 workers, but the rail carrier says it's pursuing similar agreements with the other rail unions.

The White House took some credit for the developments, with Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre telling reporters on Thursday that the deals follow "continued advocacy and involvement from the Biden administration."

But CSX President and CEO Joe Hinrichs describes a turn of events that started from within.

Hinrichs, who started at CSX last September, says that even as the freight railroads as a group remained staunchly opposed to paid sick leave, he was in discussions at the multibillion-dollar company about doing something different once the national negotiations were over.

During his three decades in the auto industry, Hinrichs saw workers get allowances for absences that can be used for various purposes, including if they wake up sick. In rail, workers must get approval far in advance for any paid personal days they take. There's no calling in sick the morning of your shift.

"It's really difficult, of course, to pre-approve sickness when you don't know you're going to be sick," Hinrichs said.

His first couple months on the job were punctuated by union votes on the contract. He watched as four of the 12 rail unions voted it down, citing the lack of paid sick leave as a driving factor.

All the freight railroads had been suffering from a shortage of workers, in part because they all furloughed a lot of workers at the start of the pandemic, and workers didn't come back.

And as the negotiations ground on, the employees they did have were speaking out loudly about the lack of paid sick leave and gaining broad public support. The issue was becoming a liability for the rail industry.

"There's no doubt that the railroad industry overall didn't get improvements to its image by what transpired over those several months," says Hinrichs.

In December, after the new contract had gone into effect, Hinrichs and other senior CSX executives sat down with leaders from the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees and restarted the conversation over paid sick leave.

This week, that union and one other became the first to strike a deal.

"If we want to change, if we're going to make a difference, we have to try new things," Hinrichs said.

Senators band together to pressure other railroads

Famously progressive Senator Bernie Sanders was joined by Republican Senator Mike Braun of Indiana on Thursday in challenging CEOs of other freight rail companies to follow suit.

"At a time of record-breaking profits, that industry can and must guarantee at least seven paid sick days to every rail worker in America," Sanders said. "In the year 2023, that is not a whole lot to ask."

A handful of his colleagues across the aisle seem to agree.

Just before the Senate voted to impose the rail contract without sick leave, there had been a vote on a separate bill that gave rail workers seven days of paid sick time. Six Republicans including Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and Braun had gotten on board, but the measure fell short of the 60 votes it needed to clear the Senate.

"Those of us in Congress who voted for seven days... we are not going to forget this issue," Sanders warned on Thursday.

He said he hoped the railroads would act voluntarily, but "if they don't, I look forward to seeing them right here in this Senate committee room."

In fact, more discussions are already underway, with unions reporting they have reopened negotiations with other freight railroads to add paid sick leave. But many rank-and-file workers are bracing for what they'll be asked to give up in return.

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees says the union gave no concessions in its deal with CSX.

Asked to confirm that, CSX's Hinrichs said: "It is true that the workers themselves did not give anything to help pay for these benefits."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.