On September 15, the Biden administration helped broker a deal between freight-rail carriers and the twelve unions that represent American rail workers. Touted as averting a potentially catastrophic strike, the deal was tentative, pending a series of votes by union members. On October 10, the third largest union involved, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE), rejected the deal by a vote of fifty-six to forty-three. Without a new deal by November 19, workers could walk off the job, leading to widespread disruptions to commerce and travel and costing the American economy as much as $2 billion per day.
The two sides are largely in agreement on pay. After three years without a raise, workers are set to earn a 24 percent increase over a five-year period under the tentative deal, terms consistent with those recommended by a Presidential Emergency Board in August. The major sticking points involve quality-of-life issues—including punitive attendance policies, understaffing, and safety—which the board left to negotiators to work out.
Under current attendance policies, workers are penalized for taking unscheduled time off due to illness or other emergencies. Union leaders initially asked for fifteen days of paid sick leave, but the tentative agreement provides just one. The deal also offers workers unpaid time off for three health-care visits, but only if scheduled thirty days in advance and on either a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. For many workers, who learned the details of the agreement well after President Biden announced it, these provisions are unacceptable. Jon Hauger, a conductor who works for BNSF, a railway owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the new leave policy is “a complete joke.” “You can’t plan out 30 days in advance,” he said. “It’s offensive.”