The bitter negotiations that nearly brought the country’s freight rail system to a halt last week hinged on one quality of life issue: worker leave.
Rail workers nearly went on strike over paid sick leave. They lost their fight, but in the post-pandemic era, the issue of how and when workers can take leave from their jobs is at the core of several major labor negotiations.
At Delta, nearly 15,000 pilots threatened a work stoppage due in part to disagreements about time off and scheduling before they reached a tentative agreement with the airline this week. At the University of California, where some 48,000 graduate student workers and researchers are in the midst of a contentious strike; workers pushed for — and won — major concessions from the university on its paid time-off and family leave policies.
More than 100,000 rail workers were days away from a likely strike after the rail companies refused demands for five paid sick days. It took Congress stepping in and forcing a deal to avert the strike, because of the unique labor laws that govern rail and some other transportation workers.
Labor experts and organizers say the pandemic aimed a floodlight at the public health ramifications of in-person work, elevating for workers the importance of paid leave in contract disputes.
“Through the pandemic, people saw what happens when someone comes to work sick,” said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. “It’s bad for them and bad for co-workers.”
Many companies offer some paid leave to employees, but the U.S. is one of only a handful of countries in the world not to require paid sick leave for workers — by some measures, the only wealthy country not to do so. Even the pandemic failed to move the needle significantly in Washington, with efforts by Democrats to create national sick and family leave programs fizzling out early in Biden’s presidency, despite vocal support from some corporations.
At the University of California, where the massive, nearly monthlong strike has disrupted nine campuses with more than 280,000 students, workers cited family leave as one of the motivating factors behind the contract disagreement, in addition to low pay and high inflation.
The university did agree to increase leave for the workers — doubling parental leave from four to eight weeks and increasing other paid time off by a week — in the midst of the strike.
Workers credit the strike for the concession but say big gaps remain on the strike’s main wage issue: salaries for notoriously low-paying jobs for graduate student teachers.
“Winning real, legal, legally protected paid time off was huge for us,” said Tanzil Chowdhury, a Ph.D. student and researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who is among those still on strike.
The fights over leave policies have taken on bitter tones at times, as many companies, including Delta and most of the freight rail companies, posted record profits at various points during the pandemic.
The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, one of the rail unions that voted against the deal, said it had ballparked the total cost of seven days of paid sick leave for the seven major freight rail companies at around $226 million to $237 million a year in 2023 and 2024.
That estimate is based on workers using an average of four out of the seven days a year, said Peter Kennedy, an executive assistant at the union. The seven class I freight companies made more than $27 billion in operating income in 2021, an average of about $4 billion per company.
A spokesman for the National Railway Labor Conference, the group of rail companies negotiating with the unions, did not dispute the income data but said that its figures showed the cost of paid sick leave would have been more in the range of $400 million a year. Railroad workers already have access to short-term leave programs that give them partial compensation in the event of longer illnesses.
“Railroads consistently said that they were willing to reach a deal within the value of the compromise framework crafted by the PEB’s neutral arbitrators,” Brendan Branon, the chairman of the National Railway Labor Conference, said in a statement, adding that instead, the unions kept proposing additions that increased the cost of the deal. “This was the sticking point for the railroads.”
Following Congress’ resolution of the impasse, activist investors have put forth proposals to get two of the biggest rail companies, Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern, to offer their workers paid sick leave next year.
“Union Pacific knows quality of life concerns are real, and we are working with employees to make changes,” spokesperson Robynn Tysver said in a statement Friday. “Employee feedback has driven recent strides in our attendance policy, and we are currently piloting a work-rest pilot that we hope to learn from and implement more broadly.”
A Norfolk Southern spokesman declined to comment on the investor proposal.
In contract negotiations at Delta, the company recently agreed to increase maternity leave benefits to 10 weeks and offer two weeks of parental leave after pilots had voted earlier to authorize a strike.
“We are pleased to have reached an agreement in principle for a new pilot contract, one that recognizes the contributions of our pilots to Delta’s success,” company spokesman Benjamin P. Zhang said in a statement. “We appreciate the work of the negotiating teams and the mediator in reaching this agreement in principle.”
Other unions are paying attention to these fights — and gearing up to make sick leave a major part of their negotiations.
Brian Pollitt, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 234, the largest union in the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), said he expected the issue to be one of its priorities in a new contract next year.
“We’re middle-class people,” he said. “Some of us can’t afford to miss a day.”
SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch said that negotiations were expected to start early next year in advance of an October deadline but declined to comment further.