Tentative agreement averts railroad strike, yet worker anxiety and skepticism remain

Photo by Eric Harrold/Fall River County Herald-Star

With Edgemont’s well-known covered bridge in the foreground, a Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) train sets on the tracks near the City Park. Local BNSF workers will still be on the job in the foreseeable future since negotiations between rail carriers and labor resulted in a tentative agreement last week that is being voted on by rank-and-file membership in the coming weeks.

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By Eric Harrold 

Staff Writer

EDGEMONT – Local railroad employees in Fall River County will stay on the job and the nation as a whole breathed a collective sigh of relief as a looming railroad worker strike was narrowly averted, as fruitful negotiations resulted in increased worker pay and relaxed penalties for absence due to illness or emergencies.

On Thursday morning, Sept. 15, after two years of negotiations between six of the largest freight carriers and 12 unions representing 115,000 railroad workers, political leaders and union representatives celebrated a tentative agreement between the freight rail carriers and labor unions that averted a strike, which would have shut down critical components of the U.S. economy, according to several major media outlets. In the coming weeks, rank-and-file membership will vote on the proposed contract, with the current contract remaining in place in the interim, which will allow transportation to carry on as usual for the time being. 

One of the major concerns of local railroad workers residing in Fall River County appears to mirror those expressed by workers in other parts of the country and that is whether permanent changes will be made that will allow them to have sufficient time and flexibility to attend to personal health issues. In the new agreement, workers were granted just one day of paid sick leave, although union leaders had lobbied for 15 days, but language of the agreement insists that workers will no longer face penalties for missing time due to serious illness or a medical emergency.   

In a statement released by Dennis Pierce, President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the tentative agreement calls for an immediate wage increase of 14% once compounded with an additional 4% on July 1, 2023 and 4.5% on July 1, 2024. In addition, wage increases of 3% effective July 1, 2020, 3.5% effective July 1, 2021, and 7% effective July 1, 2022 will be fully retroactive, for a compounded increase of 24% over the five-year term of the agreement, which also includes annual lump-sum bonus payments totaling $5,000. 

Pierce’s statement also referenced concessions by rail carriers that will increase the ability of workers to attend to their personal health concerns.

“We listened when our members told us that a final agreement would require improvements to their quality of life as well as economic gains,” he stated. “As a result this agreement includes agreement provisions that will create voluntary assigned days off for members working in thru freight service, and all members will receive one additional paid day off. Most importantly, for the first time ever, the agreement provides our members with the ability to take time away from work to attend routine and preventive medical care, as well as exemptions from attendance policies for hospitalizations and surgical procedures.”

Another provision of the agreement is that it protects two-person crews; a primary concern of many that insist it is essential for railroad worker safety. Despite this and other concessions by large rail carriers including BNSF, skepticism by railroad workers living in Edgemont appears similar to that of those living elsewhere who feel that companies will just continue to expect more from a decreasing workforce, meaning that remaining employees will work long, extended shifts with little time off in between. 

Fall River County Herald Star

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