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The Wall Street Journal: U.S. railroad strike hinges on dispute over attendance policies

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One of the labor unions representing U.S. railroad workers said Wednesday its members rejected a tentative agreement its leaders had reached, a setback in efforts to avoid a potential strike that would disrupt the movement of goods across the country.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers said its 4,900 members had voted to reject a deal reached with the biggest U.S. freight railroads as part of bigger broader negotiations.

IAM is one of 10 labor groups that has reached or is completing tentative agreements based on a proposal laid out by a presidential advisory panel. Members at two of those groups are also voting Wednesday to ratify or reject the agreements. Two other unions haven’t yet reached any deal with the companies.

Officials from the two sides are meeting Wednesday in Washington, D.C., with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. White House officials are trying to broker a deal before a Friday 12:01 a.m. deadline when the unions have threatened to start a strike. Railroads have started cutting some services this week, although Congress could intervene to delay or stop any strike.

The biggest stumbling block isn’t about pay. It is about a dispute over attendance policies. Members of IAM were concerned about railroads’ attendance policies that penalize them for taking unscheduled days off if they or a family member gets sick, a union official said.

Unions representing engineers and conductors—the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and SMART-Transportation Division—have also raised the issue and are seeking to include changes to attendance policies in the current negotiations. The two groups represent around 66,000 railroad workers.

Union Pacific Corp
UNP,
-3.78%
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and BNSF Railway have introduced attendance policies with points systems, as part of efforts to reduce employee absences. The railroads said that because of staffing shortages, they had to improve attendance to maintain uninterrupted operations.

BNSF, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
BRK.B,
-0.32%

BRK.A,
-0.33%
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has said its new attendance policy has resulted in improved staffing levels and has given workers better ways to manage their time off. Executives said they made changes in June in response to employee feedback, such as allowing workers to earn up to 37 points.

The Presidential Emergency Board, a federal panel convened by President Joe Biden to intervene to help end the labor dispute, said in its 124-page report that disputes over attendance policies are best resolved in the grievance and arbitration process.

The White House signaled that it isn’t supportive of Congress taking action to end the dispute. “This is an issue that can and should be worked out by the rail companies and the unions, not by Congress,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday.

Railroads, like other employers, have struggled to rehire workers. On top of layoffs in the years before the pandemic, railroads furloughed workers during the early days of Covid-19, exacerbating the problem.

The major U.S. freight railroads had 67,868 employees in the second quarter this year, down 17% from 81,374 in 2019, according to data shared with the Surface Transportation Board, a federal regulator tasked with overseeing the interstate rail system.

An expanded version of this story appears on WSJ.com.

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