Rail workers help the U.S. find a new work-life balance

A pact that averted a rail strike includes better rules on time off for employees, an example of similar shifts in other workplaces after the pandemic.

A locomotive driver waits at the rail yard in Selkirk, N.Y.

For post-pandemic America, an agreement struck Thursday to avert a strike of railroad workers could mark an important transition in the U.S. economy. Details of the pact are still not public, but it appears the rail industry and its employees found a compromise on a very common issue in today’s workplace: What is the best balance between one’s job and the rest of daily life?

“This agree­ment is val­i­da­tion of what I’ve al­ways be­lieved: Unions and man­age­ment can work to­gether,” said President Joe Biden, who added that the pact, if approved by union members, will improve working conditions.

For the rail workers, the issue during negotiations was not so much more pay as better rules for taking time off for unplanned personal needs. The industry, both during the pandemic and before, has experienced a massive loss of jobs and a greater push for efficiency. Trains got longer. Schedules got tighter. Payrolls got smaller. More was demanded of remaining workers. And more workers wanted unscheduled time off.

Other industries might learn from this agreement on how to balance efficiency, work conditions, and the interests of consumers at a time of shifting attitudes among many workers. That shift is partly generational. Young people are entering the workforce with less confidence that the economy will provide stable employment. A common strategy among the youngest workers  is to develop their talents through entrepreneurial side projects that nourish the hope of economic autonomy.

Worker mobility and a rise in support for unions also reflect how people are reassessing how work shapes their lives and defines their identities. A McKinsey study in July noted that the 25% voluntary quit rate in the post-pandemic labor market shows that more people want “to reevaluate what they want from a job – and from life – which is creating a large pool of active and potential workers who are shunning the traditionalist path.” Support among Americans for organized labor has risen to its highest level – 71% – since 1965, according to a Gallup Poll.

“Workers just want to best accommodate, integrate, balance – whatever word you want to use – work into their lives,” Chris DeSantis, a behavior specialist who focuses on workplace attitudes, wrote in Fortune Magazine this week. They are moving “beyond the notion that work is simply the thing we do for a paycheck, and ‘life’ merely the momentary reprieves between showing up at the office. Work, when it engages us, is life-affirming.”

Those ingredients are bound to get noticed at a time when workers are seeking to build unions in companies like Starbucks and Amazon while many health care workers are picketing for better working conditions and patient services. 

“Employees want to make a meaningful social impact, and they will do this earlier in their lives instead of waiting for retirement,” according to an assessment of changing worker attitudes by the consulting firm Gartner. “People will actively seek opportunities to tie the impact and value of their work to their mission, purpose, and passions … [for] social innovation and equitability.”

The history of work and labor relations, long defined by competing interests and contested trade-offs, may be entering an era shaped by new standards of work-life balance – both on and beyond the job site.

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