(AP) - Tens of thousands engineers are still frustrated by the lack of paid sickness time and the demands that railroads such as BNSF make in negotiations despite deals made this year with most other rail unions.
In the fall of last year, the lack of sick leave and other concerns about quality of life relating to the busy schedules that train crews have were at the forefront of the negotiations. They reached the brink before Congress intervened to prevent a strike.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen says that railroads still ask for too much for sick leave instead of providing workers with the basic benefits they believe they are entitled to.
Rob Cunningham is one of BLET's General Chairmen, who is leading negotiations with BNSF.
Cunningham, however, said that BNSF's behavior in the last week's talks was particularly 'hard-headed'.
This weekend, the railroad based in Fort Worth, Texas is in the spotlight because it's owned by Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway. Thousands of shareholders gathered in Omaha, Nebraska on Saturday to hear him answer questions.
Buffett was not questioned about how BNSF treats its employees, but Buffett is extremely hands-off with Berkshire companies. He lets them run themselves and largely. He has in the past declined to become involved in labor negotiation at subsidiary companies.
You would think that with something so simple as paid sick leave, he could simply say: "Do it." This is what we need to do. Cunningham, who is a major philanthropist himself, said that Buffett's actions were the right ones.
Cunningham stated, "But it's clear that he does not practice what he preaches."
Lena Kent, a BNSF spokesperson, said that the railroad had already agreed to give sick leave to over 6,000 employees in eight unions.
CSX is leading the way in the industry by reaching agreements on sick leave with the majority of its unions. Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific also announced sick time agreements. These deals offer workers four paid sick days and the option of converting three leave days to sick days.
Sheriee bowman, CSX spokeswoman, said that the company is committed to ensuring all employees feel respected, valued and appreciated, as well as working together in a team.
The majority of the other agreements announced are for smaller unions who do maintenance and repairs along the rails, and have more regular schedules. The Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, the conductors union, has reached agreements with NS and CSX which include five sick days paid and the option of converting two personal leave days.
Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division Union, which represents track maintenance workers, has reached sick time agreements with UP CSX, and Norfolk Southern. However, they had to fight for this benefit without having to make concessions.
Engineers' Union has not yet reached a sick leave agreement with any railroad.
BLET's main concern is that, even if railroads are willing to grant sick leave to engineers, they still hold workers responsible for not showing up for work. This is due to their strict attendance policy. Even if they get sick leave, workers may feel hesitant to use it since they will still be penalized if they miss work. CSX says it won't penalize workers who take sick leave.
Mark Wallace, BLET’s second-highest official, said: 'We will have locomotive engineers, conductors, and other transportation workers make a decision about whether they want to work ill and handle the most dangerous equipment that any transport group deals with, or if they are going to be subjected to attendance policies.
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who has been pressing the railroads for sick leave and attempted unsuccessfully to mandate it in December when Congress voted on the contract, said that he was encouraged by the progress made so far.
Since the beginning of the year, more than one-third of rail workers have received paid sick leave. On CSX, Norfolk Southern and other railroads, workers now enjoy sick leave in a proportion closer to two thirds.
The Vermont Independent said that more must be done without making concessions.
Sanders stated that the companies should provide these benefits immediately. It is past time.
Sanders stated that the negative publicity received by the railroads last year for refusing sick leave forced them to act.
Sanders stated that the rail industry realized it was difficult to justify record-breaking profits and massive stock purchases, and then claim they didn't have the money to guarantee paid sick leave to workers.
Jeremy Ferguson, SMART TD president, said he hoped that the agreements reached by his union with CSX to provide five sick days would be a model agreement for the other railroads. He is also trying to free conductors from strict attendance policies which have forced them to be on call 24/7 in recent years.
Ferguson stated, "That's when we got into a real fight with the carriers."
The agreement SMART TD made with Norfolk Southern last weekend aims to make sure conductors know their days off ahead of time. Norfolk Southern's Thomas Crosson stated that the new rules will help, as conductors are expected to work six consecutive days followed by two off days. The schedule for each week will also be more predictable.