The Freight Rail Labor Dispute Was Never About ‘Sick Days’

Workers were not threatening to shut down the nation’s rail system over a few sick days. They were sounding the alarm on a broken system that affects us all.
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On Friday, President Biden put an end to the freight rail labor dispute by signing a law that forces the 12 unions involved to accept the terms of the tentative agreement his office brokered back in September. It was a law he called on Congress to pass earlier this week, even though four of those unions rejected those very same terms. Biden urged Congress to pass this legislation—which did so with overwhelming majorities in both chambers in just a few days—in order to avoid what he predicted would be “an economic catastrophe at a very bad time in the calendar.”


Biden tried to sound a hopeful note for the future. “But we still have more work to do, in my view, in terms of ultimately getting paid sick leave not just for rail workers but for every worker in America. That is a goal I had in the beginning, and I’m coming back at it,” he said.

This has been the general narrative around the freight rail labor dispute since September, that workers were unhappy with the tentative agreement because it did not have enough sick leave. In the last few days, virtually all of the nation’s leading publications ran explainers about why paid sick leave became the point of contention in negotiations and why workers didn’t get it. Progressive legislators introduced an amendment that would tack on seven paid sick days to the agreement, which passed the House along party lines but failed in the Senate. But as I wrote on September 15, “While not factually incorrect, this drastically oversimplifies why freight rail workers want to strike and why they may vote against the tentative agreement.” 

In my experience talking to hundreds of freight rail workers over the past 18 months, the issue of paid sick leave was rarely brought up. Yes, people talked about having to show up to work sick. Yes, workers talked about not being able to go to doctor appointments or receive needed medical care. But they also talked about a lot of other issues that have been minimized in the last several months, issues that matter to the entire American public. What was once the beginnings of a grassroots worker uprising against corporate greed narrowed to a grievance about sick time. Ironically, this fed back into the negotiating process. By the time Biden got involved in mid-September, his goal, by his own admission, was getting workers more sick time, a contractual provision many rank-and-file union members are deeply skeptical would actually improve their lives in practice.


I started covering freight rail labor issues in early 2021 because I came across a Youtube video by a union official named Jason Cox warning basically anyone who would listen that freight rail companies were slashing staff to the bone, cutting safety inspections, and closing inspection and repair facilities. There were no longer enough qualified people to do the job well. “Over the last 11 months the railroads have used the pandemic to further reduce manpower at the expense of safety,” he said. “Carmen are fatigued yet expected to maintain the standard of unrealistic inspection policies as if fully staffed.” He ended the video by saying ‘"I implore anyone who might be watching who has the authority to act to please act now." At the time I watched it in February 2021, the video had nine views. Between then and when my first article on the subject was published a month later, there were six main line freight train derailments reported by local media across the country, and many more that went unreported.

While the video was about freight rail workers specifically, what I found in the months to follow was a story familiar to millions of American workers. A huge corporation reported record profits in investor calls while simultaneously demanding workers do more with less and sacrifice for the cause, using the pandemic and other external factors as excuses to cut expenses to the bone. Seemingly arbitrary headcount numbers resulted in slashed workforces. The resulting poor service was blamed on “worker shortages.” Policies set by business efficiency experts and MBAs in corporate headquarters clashed with the real-life needs of the workers on the ground who know their craft. Warnings by the people who know the work best that all of this not only won’t go well but is actually dangerous went unheeded, ignored, and people even got punished for speaking out. 


For freight rail, the added concern is that workers are often handling hazardous materials, train cars full of explosive liquids, toxic substances, and chemicals that if released into the air could cause a poison cloud of terrifying consequences. In 2013, a runaway train with 72 tank cars filled with liquid petroleum coasted down a hill and crashed through the town center of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The train became a giant bomb and killed 47 people, destroyed 40 buildings, and spilled millions of gallons of oil into the soil and river. Among the causes of this tragedy, according to Canada's Transportation Safety Board's then-chairperson Wendy Tadros, was "a shortline railway running its operations at the margins" and cutting corners on maintenance and training. In other words, it was doing exactly what the biggest, most profitable railroad companies in the country are doing now.

Workers are not just scared about their safety and the safety of others. They’re also disturbed by the cratering service quality the railroads offer. There is an unusual agreement between the major rail unions and shippers, who are the railroad’s customers, that management’s relatively recent obsession with slashing costs to improve profit margins is bad for everyone except Wall Street investors. Shippers are fed up with delays, service issues, and rising prices. Eric Byer, the CEO of the National Association of Chemical Distributors, penned an op-ed in October supporting the workers’ demands, a remarkable measure considering that typically customers of a business prioritize low costs and service stability. But, in this case, management is acting with such disregard towards the needs of everyone but themselves and their shareholders that the unions and customers are in agreement. Byer and all others whose industries rely on the railroads for getting their products to market know who is to blame. “Why are we in this predicament?” Byer wrote. “Because the freight rail companies put us here.”


These issues have existed for years. But the reason workers are so mad they were willing to strike now is because of how the railroads reacted to these problems. Instead of cleaning up the mess they made, railroads doubled down and instituted draconian attendance policies this year so they could squeeze their existing workers even more. 

It is difficult to summarize or overstate how horrendous these policies are. I encourage you to read my previous articles on the subject if you haven’t already. But the short version is the people who actually run the trains have to spend upwards of 90 percent of their lives—including time they’re asleep—either at work or ready to show up at work within 90 minutes. To put this in perspective, someone who works 40 hours a week every week of the year with no vacations or sick days is on the clock less than 24 percent of the time.

This is where the sick time issue comes in—and misses the point. Railroad workers get days off, but they can be difficult to actually schedule. According to work rules, railroad workers technically can take days off if they are sick, usually called personal leave days, but it proves almost impossible to do in practice due to such nonsense as faulty automated systems and arbitrary manager decisions. You can read all about the bureaucratic shenanigans in this story. As a result, many workers are justifiably skeptical that more days off on paper won’t actually help them in reality.


While not being able to take sick days or see doctors is a big concern, a bigger one I have heard time and again is the mental toll of not being able to spend meaningful time unwinding from a stressful job, spending time with their families, doing hobbies they enjoy, or otherwise on anything other than work that makes life worth living. Seven more sick days a year, as a rejected amendment to the Congressional legislation last week would have required, would have been appreciated as better than nothing, but still would have fallen short of addressing the central issue.

This is what hundreds of railroad workers and their spouses told me—I often interviewed workers’ spouses, too, because their families feel the consequences of these attendance policies as much as the workers themselves. But it is also what the Biden-appointed Presidential Emergency Board—a kind of super-arbitrator—concluded when it issued its recommendations for a contract in August. In rejecting the unions’ proposal for 15 paid days off per year with mechanisms to ensure workers could actually take them on short notice, the board said it recognized that, “while nominally labeled as sick leave days, [they] would be structured to be used on demand as a means of permitting employees to better balance work-life needs and would effectively be personal days that could not be denied for any reason by the Carriers.” Once the labor fight hit national headlines, this clause got lost in the shuffle, even though it might be the most important one in the entire 124-page document.

Time and again, I heard from railroad workers that they viewed this contract negotiation as their last, best hope to fight back against corporate greed, against a way of running the railroads that violated every conceivable principle of basic human decency. Some railroad workers I spoke to simply wanted to improve their working conditions, but many more spoke in grander terms. They thought a strike would be in the country’s best interest, even if it led to short-term pain, by calling attention to—and, ideally, forcing the end of—a management style that hurts everyone. Our food and fuel, the goods we order that get shipped from China, our cars and our Amazon packages and countless other things are more expensive in part for the same reason the railroad workers want to strike. At least, that’s what Martin Oberman, the head of the Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that has held multiple hearings on freight rail service in recent years, has to say.

Not only is the plight of the freight rail worker affecting us all, but millions of American workers can likely sympathize. While the specifics of the freight rail workers’ plight are unique, their situation is not. Nor is it limited to blue collar workers. Feeling crushed under the thumb of an elitist management that seemingly has no interest in running a sound, sustainable business at the expense of the people who do the work just so the big shots at the top can buy another weekend retreat is the dominant American 21st Century worker experience. This dispute got as much attention as labor stories ever do in this country and this is still the result. As more than 500 leading labor historians in the U.S. said in a signed letter to Biden, that does not bode well for workers in this country. Rather than recognize the moment and see the light, Biden and the Democrats averted their gaze. 

After making prepared remarks and signing the contract into law, a reporter asked Biden when rail workers can expect to get their sick days. “As soon as I can convince our Republicans to see the light,” he said. Big words from a man who can’t see what’s right in front him.