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Norfolk Southern Used Sick Leave as Bargaining Chip to Erode Safety, Union Says

The company wanted to withhold sick leave unless the union agreed to support an industry-favored inspection system.

A Norfolk Southern train passes underneath a bridge on February 25, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio.

When Norfolk Southern, the railroad company behind the crash in East Palestine, Ohio, finally offered to give its workers paid sick leave, its proposal came with a major caveat: the company must be allowed to campaign to erode safety regulations without union opposition.

In a letter sent on Wednesday to government officials, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, an official for a major rail union — representing roughly 3,000 Norfolk Southern workers — said that the company had recently said it would only agree to give workers paid sick leave if the union withdrew a letter of opposition to its new experimental inspection system that would make train operation more dangerous for workers and communities like East Palestine.

Norfolk Southern further said that the union must issue a letter to federal regulators in support of the company’s inspection system in order to obtain the benefit for workers. The proposal came as negotiations between the company and the union on the sick leave issue had stalled, and felt like an “underhanded” attempt by the company to yet again prioritize profits over worker safety, the letter said.

Norfolk Southern and other rail companies have been pushing regulators at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to reinstitute a program for automated track inspections. Though rail unions have said that they’re not explicitly against automated inspections, they believe that these inspections should be paired with human inspections in order to catch defects that machines couldn’t find, which they say aren’t included in the program.

“[Norfolk Southern]’s proposal was ultimately for the Union to be complicit in [Norfolk Southern]’s effort to reduce legally required minimum track safety standards through supporting their experimental track inspection program without a sensible fail-safe or safety precautions to help ensure trains would not derail,” the letter says. “In other words, [Norfolk Southern]’s proposal was to use [the public’s] safety as their bargaining chip to further pursue their record profits under their cost-cutting business model.”

This proposal, sent by the company as the East Palestine disaster was unfurling, is “unfathomably obtuse and shameless,” the letter concludes. The sick leave issue has been a major focus of union members over the past months, as rail workers got zero days of guaranteed paid sick leave before this year.

The letter was signed by Jonathan B. Long, chairman of the American Rail System Federation (ARSF) of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (BMWED). Attached to the letter was a copy of the proposal that Norfolk Southern sent to the BMWED, which the union did not agree to, Long said.

Long also condemned Norfolk Southern for other profit-seeking moves that have put rail workers in danger and potentially contributed to the Ohio disaster and other crashes.

At the center of the rail industry’s modern profit seeking is a cost-cutting model known as Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), Long wrote. PSR was adopted by rail companies in the last decade to keep trains running with bare minimum staffing and to push rail infrastructure to — and often over — its limits, in order to line the pockets of rail executives and shareholders. The practice has long been the target of rail worker advocates, and took center stage during last year’s showdown between rail companies and their workers; workers have said that it’s possible the practice contributed to the crash in East Palestine.

Lawmakers must reign in the rail industry’s greed in order to make railroad operations safe for all, the letter said.

“While the world was learning about the horrors occurring in East Palestine on television, [Norfolk Southern] officials assessed the damages and carried out their plans for rebuilding the track structure so that they could get trains moving again,” Long wrote. “After all, if the trains are not moving, the railroads are not making (as much) money, and [Norfolk Southern] is no longer in the business of railroading but instead in the business of making record profits for shareholders and Wall Street.”