Aaron Hiles made an appointment to see a doctor before his employer unexpectedly called him into work so the 51-year-old locomotive engineer delayed his medical visit and instead suffered a heart attack and died in an engine room on a BNSF freight train somewhere between Kansas City, Mo., and Fort Madison, Iowa.
BNSF, one of the largest freight rail carriers in the nation, just a few months earlier had imposed a new attendance policy that would have subjected Hiles to penalties if he failed to show up but his death was the inspiration for a union demand for sick time in the ongoing negotiations between the nation’s train companies and their employees’ collective bargaining units.
After three years of failed negotiations, President Joe Biden signed into law a measure that imposes a contract brokered by his administration back in September, a deal that gives workers a 24 percent raise over five years, caps on health care premiums, and one additional personal day, but no paid sick days.
The legislation was sponsored by New Jersey Congressman Donald Payne, Jr.
Four of the 12 freight rail unions, collectively representing more than half of the 115,000 freight rail workers covered by the deal, had voted down the agreement, citing the lack of paid sick days as a primary reason.
“It is shocking and appalling that any Member of Congress would cast a vote against any sort of provision that raises the standard of living for hard-working Americans,” said Tony D. Cardwell, president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division-International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “In fact, such a vote is nothing less than anti-American, an abdication of their oath of office and you are deemed, in my eyes, unworthy of holding office.”
“In future negotiations, the carriers are going to remember that and use it against us,” said roadway mechanic Reece Murtagh. “It’s going to be even harder for us to negotiate a fair contract because they realize when it comes down to it, there’s not going to be a strike.”
“Look, I know this bill doesn’t have paid sick leave that these rail workers and frankly every worker in America deserves. But that fight isn’t over,” Biden said. “I’ve supported paid sick leave for a long time. I’m going to continue that fight ’til we succeed.”
The new contract covers a five-year period dating back to 2020, so workers will see an average payout of $16,000 in back raises and bonuses within about 60 days but without time off when employees get sick, there could be a wave of departures once those are paid out.
“Where I live, there’s refinery jobs, there’s trucking jobs, there’s many other crafts out there that pay better and [where] they get respect from their employer,” said Matthew Weaver, a railroad carpenter who said he expects many workers to take the back pay and run. “That’s the problem. Working conditions, attendance policies, lack of respect, militant discipline — we’re really suffering.”
“It’s very frustrating,” said Weaver, a railroad employee since 1994. “Here is America’s essential workers — rail workers. We have no paid sick days. It’s disgusting.”
“Because of Precision Scheduled Railroading, our members are forced to work more hours, have less stability, suffer more stress and receive less rest. The ask for sick leave was not out of preference, but rather out of necessity,” said SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. “No American worker should ever have to face the decision of going to work sick, fatigued or mentally unwell versus getting disciplined or being fired by their employer, yet that is exactly what is happening every single day on this nation’s largest freight railroads.”
“In the railway contract negotiations, the president who calls himself ‘pro-labor’ has been what Roosevelt called ‘an economic royalist,'” said Marianne Williamson, a self-help author who was among Biden’s challengers for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
“Nobody is upset that President Joe Biden convinced Congress to stop a costly railroad strike during the height of the holiday season,” said another progressive activist, Lisa McCormick. “I am mad that he screwed workers instead of forcing their billionaire employers to give them time off when they get sick.”