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Railroads reject latest proposal from third largest union, as strike date looms

<i>Danny Karnik/AP/FILE</i><br/>Freight train cars sit in a Norfolk Southern rail yard on September 14 in Atlanta. US freight railroads rejected a new sick leave proposal from a union of track maintenance workers that is threatening to go on strike in less than 30 days without a new labor deal.
AP
Danny Karnik/AP/FILE
Freight train cars sit in a Norfolk Southern rail yard on September 14 in Atlanta. US freight railroads rejected a new sick leave proposal from a union of track maintenance workers that is threatening to go on strike in less than 30 days without a new labor deal.

By Vanessa Yurkevich and Chris Isidore, CNN Business

US freight railroads rejected a new sick leave proposal from a union of track maintenance workers that is threatening to go on strike in less than 30 days without a new labor deal.

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division announced last week that its rank-and-file membership had rejected a tentative labor deal reached in September, setting the stage for a possible strike as soon as Nov. 19 if a new deal cannot be reached.

BMWED proposed seven paid sick days — up to 56 hours per year — as part of a new contract agreement, which the railroads outright rejected, according to Peter Kennedy, BMWED’s director of strategic coordination and research.

“It’s totally asinine,” said Kennedy.

The National Railway Labor Conference which represents the railroads said the previous tentative agreement which BMWED rank and file members voted down earlier this month was the “most generous wage package in almost 50 years of national rail negotiations.”

“BMWED leadership is asking for additional benefits and threatening to strike, this time based on the easily disproven premise that union workers are not allowed to take sick leave,” a statement from NRLC read.

If the union were to go on strike, it is expected that other freight railroad unions would honor their picket lines, causing the nation’s major freight railroads to grind to a halt, and stopping the movement of an estimated 30% of the nation’s freight.

The railroads management statement said that rail unions have agreed repeatedly in previous contracts that short-term absences would be unpaid in favor of higher compensation for days worked and more generous sickness benefits for longer absences. It said other unions at the railroads have ratified their deals with the existing sick day policy.

The union’s most recent proposal was modeled after a sick leave policy for federal workers, Kennedy said. The paid sick leave would be accrued at one hour for every 30 hours worked. The railroads could recoup hours from employees if they found out the hours weren’t really used for sick time.

“Members are very upset – they feel disenfranchised and undervalued by the railroads,” said Kennedy.

Negotiations are scheduled to resume in the next two weeks. Both sides are issuing warnings.

“Now is not the time to introduce new demands that rekindle the prospect of a railroad strike. The carriers have advised BMWED that its latest proposal will not be accepted,” NRLC said in a statement.

The union said it wants to come to an agreement before time runs out — but “I have my doubts personally,” said Kennedy of an agreement being reached in time.

BMWED represents 23,000 rail workers — and is the third largest rail worker union.

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