President Biden announced a tentative agreement early this morning to avert a nationwide railroad strike. Major railroad companies are threatening to shut down much of the nation’s freight rail, setting off widespread disruption in multiple fossil fuel sectors, as well as the economy overall, in order to avoid giving their employees unpaid sick days or time off for medical appointments or unexpected events like funerals. “They’re making a very reasonable request,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter Defazio (D-Ore.) said in an interview. “They’re asking for five unpaid sick days so they can go to the doctor when they’re sick and not be fired, and that won’t cost the railroad a penny.”

Companies refuse sick time

BNSF and Union Pacific, the continent’s two largest rail companies, reported record profits last year and U.S. railroads have given their shareholders nearly $200 billion in buybacks and dividends since 2010. If the companies refuse to concede to the unions’ demands, forcing a strike, coal deliveries to power plants would stop, as would deliveries to refineries and petrochemical facilities on the Gulf Coast. “All we’re asking is for folks to be able to go to routine doctor’s visits without pay, but they have refused to accept our proposals,” said Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET). “The average American would not know that we get fired for going to the doctor. This one thing has our members most enraged. We have guys who were punished for taking time off for a heart attack and covid. It’s inhumane.”

Because it relies on freight rail networks, Amtrak also canceled its long-distance routes starting today in anticipation of a strike. (Tentative deal: E&E News, Washington Post $, New York Times $, Axios; Strike causes and implications: The Guardian, E&E News, Washington Post explainer $, Houston Chronicle, New York Times $, WyoFile, Politico, S&P Global, Reuters, Bloomberg $, Grist, Politico Pro $, Politico Pro $; Amtrak: Axios)