Rail unions never stopped fighting for paid sick days. Persistence is paying off The freight railroad CSX announced it had made a deal to provide paid sick leave to roughly 5,000 rail workers. The White House and lawmakers are pushing other railroads to follow suit.

Rail workers never stopped fighting for paid sick days. Now persistence is paying off

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ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Now a story about the payoff of persistence. In December, it appeared rail workers had lost a big fight. They'd been asking for paid sick leave, and they'd even threatened to go on strike to get it. Congress stepped in to avert a rail shutdown, and many thought the fight was over, at least for now. Well, in the two months since, a lot has changed. NPR's Andrea Hsu explains.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: The last time I talked to Matthew Weaver back in December, he was not in a good mood.

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MATTHEW WEAVER: Here is America's essential workers, rail workers. We have no paid sick days. It's disgusting.

HSU: Well, what a difference two months can make. Weaver is a rail carpenter from Toledo, Ohio, and he is now one of about 5,000 rail workers who have just been granted four days of paid sick leave and the option of converting personal days into three more.

WEAVER: I'm very happy to hear this, and I hope that it will carry on to all Class I railroads.

HSU: To many people, this might not sound like such a big win, but let's back up. By last summer, contract negotiations between the nation's freight railroads and the rail unions had been dragging on for three years. So President Biden got involved. His administration brokered a tentative deal, giving each side some of what they wanted.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's a big win for America and for both, in my view.

HSU: Rail workers got substantial raises, but no paid sick days. The railroads had argued that workers already have personal days and coverage for serious illnesses that kicks in after a waiting period. For a lot of rail workers, though, this wasn't enough. They wanted the kind of sick days you can use if you wake up not feeling good because personal days, they say, have to be scheduled far in advance. Well, as Christmas approached, four of the 12 unions had voted down the contract brokered by the White House. They were headed toward a strike. To avoid a disaster, Congress imposed a deal with no paid sick time. Biden signed the measure into law.

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BIDEN: 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.

HSU: And he was right. But in the end, it appears change came from within - at least at one railroad, CSX. That company's new CEO, Joe Hinrichs, says he and his team knew this was something they had to deal with.

JOE HINRICHS: So it's really difficult, of course, to pre-approve sickness when you don't know you're going to be sick.

HSU: Now, before CSX, Hinrichs had spent three decades in the auto industry, where workers get paid time off that can be used for various reasons, including health. In rail, he learned, not only were there no paid sick days, some workers faced penalties for calling in sick. And there were other issues for him to consider. The freight railroads were short workers, in part because the industry furloughed so many of them at the start of the pandemic, and a lot didn't come back. And now the rail workers' anger was getting a lot of attention. Their battle for paid sick leave was becoming a liability for the rail industry.

HINRICHS: There's no doubt that the railroad industry overall didn't get improvements to its image by what transpired over those several months.

HSU: So, sure enough, last week, CSX announced it had reached deals with three rail unions to provide paid sick leave. And now the pressure is on for other railroads to follow suit. In the Senate last week, Bernie Sanders called a press conference with his Republican colleague Mike Braun of Indiana.

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BERNIE SANDERS: At a time of record-breaking profits, that industry can and must guarantee at least seven paid sick days to every rail worker in America. In the year 2023, that is not a whole lot to ask.

HSU: Now word in the rail yards is that talks between the unions and other railroads have already started. So 2023 could turn out to be the year when paid sick leave on the railroads becomes a reality.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

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