As multiple train derailments punctuate public concern about the safety of industrial freight trains and put mounting pressure on powerful carrier companies and the Biden administration, railroad workers are finally making some progress with their longstanding demand for paid sick leave that nearly led to a nationwide railroad shutdown in December.
Train derailments are piling up. On February 13, a large truck in Montgomery County, Texas, collided with a train carrying hazardous chemicals, causing the death of the truck driver and multiple train cars to derail. No chemical spills were initially reported, but by the end of the day on Monday, reports of another derailed train surfaced in rural North Carolina. Emergency crews were on the scene investigating the crash, according to local reports.
The pair of derailments follow an environmental disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, where residents were forced to temporarily evacuate after a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed and erupted in fiery plumes of pollution on February 3. A controlled burn was used to prevent multiple cars carrying vinyl chloride from exploding, sending thick clouds of toxic black smoke into the air. State authorities are monitoring air quality in the region and no deaths were reported, but local residents continue to worry about water and soil contamination and report foul smells and poisoned animals. Most recently, thousands of dead fish were found in nearby streams.
Investigators are still working to determine the cause of these wrecks — a faulty axle on a train car is suspected but not confirmed in Ohio — and whether stronger regulations could have prevented derailment of the trains. However, for the Biden administration, organized labor and the many industries that rely on railroads, the accidents come at a crucial moment in the yearslong campaign across multiple labor unions to secure paid sick leave and safer working conditions for railroad workers.
After the derailment in Ohio, railroad worker unions slammed “Wall Street-backed policy decisions” that hollowed out the workforce with layoffs and left remaining workers exhausted. Under existing contracts, rail workers do not have paid sick leave; calling in sick day-of is typically not allowed. The issue was at the center of furious contract negotiations between unions, the White House and carriers such as CSX and Norfolk Southern that dragged on for most of 2022.
By December, major unions had voted down contracts without paid sick leave and were preparing for a nationwide rail strike. Congress stepped in and passed legislation to break the strike that was promptly signed by President Joe Biden, who unceremoniously declared the move a victory for the economy ahead of the holidays. The deal secured a pay raise for workers, but not paid sick leave.
At the time, rail workers and labor activists said the ostensibly pro-labor president had thrown workers under the bus at their moment of maximum leverage over the powerful carrier companies, which stand accused of sacrificing safety in order to send record profits back to shareholders. For years, rail workers have complained that brutal scheduling practices designed to maximize profit make it difficult to seek health care and spend time with family.
“A worker should not be fired for going to the doctor,” said Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department (TDD) of the AFL-CIO, in a statement on Tuesday. “Yet it is 2023 and railroaders are fighting for sick leave in the richest country on Earth.”
The Biden administration has since touted its behind-the-scenes efforts to secure paid sick leave for rail workers, and then the derailment and toxic disaster in Ohio thrust the industry and its federal regulators into the spotlight. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Mike Braun (R-Indiana) stepped in, joining union leaders at a press conference last week to call out rail carriers for denying paid sick leave in order to finance corporate greed.
Three major rail carriers — Union Pacific, CSX and Norfolk Southern — recently announced record-breaking profits in 2020, with Union Pacific topping the list with $7 billion in reported profits. If rail carriers enjoyed an estimated $21 billion in combined profits last year, and one railroad CEO received about $20 million in compensation in 2021, then the companies can afford to provide at least seven days of sick leave, Sanders argued.
“Guaranteeing seven paid sick days to rail workers would cost the entire industry just $321 million — less than 1.2 percent of their profits in a single year,” Sanders said.
After sustaining months of bad publicity, one of the largest fright carriers, CSX, struck a deal last week with two major rail unions to provide four paid sick days annually, plus the option to use three “personal days” as sick days. The deal covers only about 5,000 workers, according to reports, but CSX is pursuing similar deals with other unions.
Railroad workers are represented by a dozen craft and industrial unions large and small, which unanimously approved a resolution this month to fight together for paid sick leave for all rail workers, either through contract negotiations or voluntary agreements like the deal struck with CSX. Given the mounting tensions between rail workers and bosses over the past year, activists with Railroad Workers United, a nonprofit that organizes across the unions, and others have argued rail unions should unite to build stronger bargaining position.
As the coalition of railroad unions points out, the United States is one of six countries across the globe that does not have a national paid leave policy for workers in any sector.
“Absent a national paid sick leave policy, the burden of securing this humane policy falls onto the shoulders of workers and the unions that represent them,” Regan said.
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