by Bruce Dunlavy
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The United States narrowly avoided a crippling railroad strike just before Christmas, a season heavily dependent on efficient transportation of cargo.

Although a potential contract agreement was submitted to the members of the several unions that represent railroad workers, at least some of those unions have voted to reject it. A resultant labor strike was avoided only by the intervention of the Federal government. President Joseph R. Biden and both houses of Congress invoked protocols of the Railway Labor Act of 1926 to compel organized workers to stay on the job.

This is the 19th time the Railway Labor Act has been used to intervene in labor-management disputes – all within the last 60 years, and all to prevent strikes. The response has been predictable. Labor sympathizers support railroad workers while owner sympathizers support railroad corporations. As usual, there is a large contingent of Americans who, although they are workers themselves, fall in on the side of the owners. This is part of a surprisingly widespread belief that labor unions are evil, corrupt, and walk hand-in-hand with socialism.

Historically, there have indeed been examples of union corruption and crime. Of course, the same thing can be said about corporations, but they do not seem to acquire the label of being sullied or anti-American. There is no anti-corporate film comparable to the Oscar®-winning On the Waterfront, which demonized dockworkers’ unions.

Like those of the past, the present labor dispute has been framed in public discourse as “the unions versus the country’s economic well-being” and not as what it is, “the unions versus the corporations.” Many Americans simply argue that the workers should accept whatever corporations offer them and be thankful that they are working at all. This sentiment is not reserved for those unions whose members have jobs that pay well and are accompanied by reasonably good benefits. Fast-food workers and other low-paid laborers are often vilified for suggesting that their jobs ought to provide enough money to ensure that a person who works a forty-hour week does not live in poverty.

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Looking at the current railroad dispute, we discover that the fight is not about wages. It is not about health insurance. It is not about holidays, paid vacation time, seniority rights, safety issues, or any of the other matters that are usually the crux of labor dissatisfaction. This one is almost entirely about one thing – paid sick leave.

Sick leave is such a common and reasonable benefit that most people are probably surprised to find out that railroad workers do not have it already. Almost everybody else does, including a lot of workers who are not unionized. After all, sickness is universal and natural in human beings. Sometimes everyone can find himself/herself simply too sick to come to work. This may be because they cannot perform their job safely and efficiently, because they do not wish to expose other workers to illness, or both.

Why, then, does the management side in this issue refuse to simply acknowledge the obvious and agree to provide some paid time off when workers are ill? It shouldn’t be a big deal, should it?

Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it is. It is a big deal because the provision of leave to workers disrupts the fine-tuning that keeps management in control. If corporate bosses could have it their way, they would prefer to have no paid time off opportunities beyond what are necessary to keep workers from resigning their jobs and finding work elsewhere.

Leave types include holidays, vacations, personal leave, and others. Although paid sick leave is almost universal in large, organized operations, the corporate bosses hate it. They hate it more than any other kind of leave, and for a particular reason that makes sick leave different from all other types of leave.

Requests for sick leave cannot be denied. Companies that work around the clock every day of the year must always maintain coverage of their operations. Every other kind of leave can be counteracted. Employees can be compelled to work overtime and to work on holidays. Yes, they will be paid at time-and-a-half, double-time, or sometimes more, but they can still be compelled to be at work.

Vacation leave is a benefit enjoyed by many workers, but it is not absolute. Vacation times (and personal days off) must be approved in advance – sometimes many months in advance – for the company to ensure that all days and all shifts are properly staffed. The selection of vacation days is usually given in seniority order, so that low-seniority employees rarely get to take the vacation times they prefer. And even if vacation days and personal days are approved, management can still retract its approval right up to the day of leave if circumstances are deemed to require the employee’s presence.

Sick leave, on the other hand, is not subject to the approval of the employer. Numerous court cases have held that the employee alone determines if his/her health problem justifies taking off work for absences of up to five days. In addition, sick leave can be sudden, with employees calling in sick shortly before their shift.

Employers don’t like sick leave only because it disrupts the efficiency of their operations, but also because it empowers workers. The boss cannot say, “You’re not sick; come to work,” or “I don’t care if you’re sick; come to work.” The worker has the final say. And that, to corporate bosses, is a bad, bad thing.