Rail workers are speaking out after Congress voted last week to avoid an industry strike that could have had catastrophic economic consequences.
BNSF railroad conductor Justin Schaaf told The Associated Press that he had to choose between getting a cavity filled or attending his son’s 7th birthday party.
“Ultimately I decided to take the day off for my kid’s birthday party,” he said. “Then when I am finally able to get into the dentist four, five, six months later, the tooth is too bad to repair at that point, so I have to get the tooth pulled out.”
Schaaf said that if he had the option of taking a sick day, he “would have never been in that situation” and said recent actions by Congress were discouraging but not surprising.
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On Friday, President Biden signed bipartisan legislation, congratulating lawmakers for helping to avert “what could have been a real disaster.”
The president acknowledged that more work needs to be done.
“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,” he said.
Roadway mechanic Reece Murtagh was more direct, telling CNN Friday that unionized workers’ collective bargaining rights have been “trampled on.”
“Their voice has not been heard, they voted against the contract,” Murtagh said. “We have a pro-labor president who loves to, you know, pat himself on the back for that, and when the going got tough, he turned his back on the people he’s supposed to be looking out for.”
The newly enacted law codifies a July deal negotiated by rail unions and the administration that would raise workers’ pay by 24% over a five-year period from 2020 through 2024, including an immediate payout on average of $11,000 upon ratification.
The agreement passed by Congress was approved by eight of 12 transportation unions involved in negotiations.
The four dissenting unions said the deal was unfair because it included insufficient paid-sick leave time. They had asked for seven paid sick days, but Congress did not include their demand in the bill, despite an effort from progressive lawmakers and even some conservatives, to amend the legislation.
Biden defended the contract, citing wage increases.
“What was negotiated was so much better than anything they ever had,” he said at a news briefing with French President Emmanuel Macron.
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The rail unions said they weren’t able to get more concessions out of the railroads because the big companies knew Congress would intervene and railroads refused to add paid sick days to the deal because they didn’t want to pay much more than a special board of arbitrators appointed by Biden recommended this summer.
In addition, the railroads said that unions have agreed over the years to forego paid sick leave in favor of higher wages and strong short-term disability benefits.
The railroads agreed to offer three unpaid days for engineers and conductors to tend to medical needs as long as they are scheduled at least 30 days in advance and promised to negotiate further.
The head of the Association of American Railroads trade group, Ian Jefferies, acknowledged that there is more to be done but said the compromise deals should help make schedules more predictable while delivering the largest raises rail workers have seen in more than four decades.
Workers and their unions say that the deal did not do enough to address quality-of-life concerns.
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“You hear when you hire out on the railroad you’re going to miss some things. But you’re not supposed to miss everything,” said retired engineer Jeff Kurtz, who remains active even in retirement with the Railroad Workers United coalition. “You shouldn’t miss your kids growing up. You shouldn’t miss the seminal moments in your family’s life.”
FOX Business’ Chris Pandolfo and The Associated Press contributed to this report.