(NewsNation) — There’s mounting pressure on freight railroads and their unions to settle their contract dispute before a looming strike deadline Friday.
The coalition negotiating on behalf of freight railroads like BNSF, Union Pacific and Kansas City Southern announced eight of the tentative agreements needed to avert a strike.
Deals mentioned so far closely follow the Presidential Emergency Board’s recommendations, calling for 24% raises over five years, $5,000 in bonuses and one additional paid leave day a year.
However, the two biggest unions representing conductors and engineers have held out because they want to see concerns about strict attendance policies and working conditions addressed.
“Quality of life is absolutely the sticking point,” Paul Lindsey, a locomotive engineer for Union Pacific in Pocatello, Idaho, said on NewsNation’s “Morning in America.”
Lindsey said his job has always been demanding. It means long hours, being on call 24/7, working holidays and Christmas — “A lot of times it’s hard to actually get any sleep because you never know when you’re going to work.”
Compounding these problems is the large workforce cuts railroads have made over the years.
Those left, Lindsey said, aren’t happy with an “oppressive” attendance policy they say the railroads set. Unions say the new rules, which took effect Feb. 1., penalize employees for missing work for any reason and reduce how many days they can take off because of fatigue and other concerns.
“You can’t get a day off for anything, you can’t get a day off to go to the dentist, to take your kid to the doctor,” Lindsey said. “The only way to get time off is essential to get FMLA (the Family and Medical Leave Act).”
BNSF Railway has defended the rules, the Associated Press reported, arguing they give employees a clearer idea of where they stand, while also ensuring the railroad has enough workers to operate its trains and haul products.
BNSF said, per the AP, that it believes its new policy provides “ample time for obligations outside of work, including planned vacations, personal leave days and unplanned absences.”
A national rail strike would be an economic disaster, Suzanne Clarke, the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said.
She said a strike would freeze the flow of goods, empty shelves, shutter workplaces and raise prices “for families and businesses alike.”
The chamber was one of many business groups to send letters to Congress urging lawmakers to step in and block a strike if the two sides can’t reach an agreement. Should it come to that, the chamber said lawmakers should impose the terms recommended by the Presidential Emergency Board.
The Association of American Railroads trade group put out a report last week estimating that shutting down the railroads would cost the economy $2 billion a day.
“A lot of people don’t realize how connected we are to the economy because they don’t see trains physically dropping off goods from at the grocery store,” Lindsey said. “But as far as higher up in the supply chain, you have things such as grain, or coal for your power plants, or chlorine for your municipal water supplies — things that are almost entirely hauled by rail.”