NOTE: This report was written Tuesday, Nov. 29, but with events moving fast, dated quickly. Congress passed the bill Biden requested on Wednesday and Thursday. We’ll have a full report later in December.
By DON McINTOSH
Less than two weeks before a nationwide rail strike was scheduled to begin Dec. 9, President Joe Biden called on Congress to pass a law forcing workers to accept a contract they voted to reject. Fellow Democrat Nancy Pelosi was quick to oblige, saying she would schedule a vote on such a bill within days.
If Congress acts, it would be the 12th time since 1963 that it would have intervened to curtail rail workers’ collective bargaining rights. Union railroad workers aren’t covered by the same federal labor law as most private sector workers. The Railway Labor Act severely limits their rights, giving the federal government multiple avenues to interfere. But railway workers worked all the way through that process and are set to use labor’s ultimate weapon, the strike, if Congress doesn’t strip them of that right.
Most everything about the dispute is complicated, but the heart of it is that railroad workers are exhausted from overtime and constantly being on call, a situation that their highly profitable quasi-monopoly employers intentionally created with layoffs and a low-staffing model called “precision railroading.” The rail workforce has declined by nearly one-third—about 45,000 jobs—over the past six years.
Even worse, rail workers lack the right to take sick days: Under draconian “points-based” attendance policies railroad companies imposed in the last few years, the companies deduct “points” when workers decline a request to come into work or when they call out of work unexpectedly for any reason. Workers can gain points if they agree to be on call for 14 days straight, but even missing a phone call to come into work can result in a stiff point deduction, and many rail workers live in rural parts of the country with limited cell service.
Conditions are so bad that rail workers have been quitting, which worsens the strain on those who remain.
Last year U.S. rail companies made over $27 billion in profit, almost double what they made a decade ago. Since 2010, the top five rail carriers have also spent $114 billion in stock buybacks and $77 billion in dividends, far more than the $138 billion they spent on their infrastructure.
Michael Paul Lindsey, a a Marine veteran and train engineer for Union Pacific, told the Labor Press he sometimes works more than 90 hours a week. And that’s on-duty time, actually working, not time spent in budget hotels away from his home base of Pocatello, Idaho. For Lindsey, working as a train engineer for Union Pacific means years of missing important family events, kids sports games, birthdays, and vacations. He can get called up at any time, so he doesn’t even try to make plans.
“My daughter doesn’t like it,” Lindsey said. “I miss a lot of activities. I can’t even do something as basic as scheduling a dentist appointment.
Railroad workers like Lindsey have had enough. In over two years of negotiations with 30 rail companies, 12 unions bargained together on behalf of their combined 115,000 workers, but couldn’t reach agreement.
So under a provision of the Railway Labor Act, Biden appointed a three-member “Presidential Emergency Board” in July. The Board released its 124-page recommended settlement on Aug. 16, a day before the nationwide rail strike was to have begun. The strike was close enough that Amtrak had canceled all of its long-distance trains ahead of the strike deadline. The proposed settlement, retroactive to 2020, would raise wages 24% over a five-year period, and provide $1,000 a year in bonuses. But it made only marginal improvements to workers’ primary complaint about scheduling and their inability to take sick days. Under the settlement, they can take unpaid days off for doctor’s appointments without being penalized, and they won’t be penalized if they are hospitalized. But the other scheduling problems remain.
Railroad companies enthusiastically endorsed the settlement. Rail unions did so reluctantly, and agreed under pressure from the Biden administration to put it to a vote of members.
But when the workers who had to live under its terms got a chance to vote on the settlement, results were mixed. In close and contentious votes, the agreement was ratified by members of eight railroad unions, including Teamster-affiliated Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen. But members of four other rail unions voted it down including the two largest rail unions SMART-TD, and Teamster-affiliated Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes. Those four unions represent the majority of railroad workers, and a strike would shut down rail nationwide.
In his statement calling on Congress to act, Biden said a rail shutdown would devastate the economy.
“As a proud pro-labor president, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement,” the statement said. “But in this case – where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families – I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.”
If the lame-duck Democratic Congress is to intervene, why not intervene on the side of workers, and grant the paid sick days that they’re demanding?
Biden said he rejected that idea: “Some in Congress want to modify the deal to either improve it for labor or for management. However well-intentioned, any changes would risk delay and a debilitating shutdown.”
Teamster-affiliated Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, one of the unions that rejected the settlement — said in a statement that it’s “deeply disappointed” with Biden’s call for Congressional intervention, saying it denies railroad workers their right to strike, and denies them the sick days they’d likely win if they could strike.
“The big corporations, the monopolies that control America – the robber baron railroads – have again profiteered from the problem they created and shifted the consequences of it onto the railroad workers, the customers, and the general public,” the union said in the statement. “This cannot continue. There must be a change.”
Biden’s stance also put him on the opposite side of politicians across the political spectrum. Even Republican Marco Rubio took it as a chance to portray himself as more pro-worker than the president. The 2016 presidential candidate and senator from Florida announced that he won’t vote for a deal that doesn’t have the support of rail workers, saying, “The railways and workers should go back and negotiate a deal that the workers, not just the union bosses, will accept.”
Senator Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, declared his intention to use Senate procedures to block consideration of the rail legislation until a roll call vote occurs on guaranteeing seven paid sick days to rail workers in America.
“The rail companies are presenting America with a false choice: accept a work stoppage or accept a contract rejected by thousands of workers,” declared Michigan Congressman Andy Levin, a longtime labor ally. “How about this: Congress can prevent a work stoppage by listening to the workers & adding a modest amount of paid sick leave to the deal.”
“If Congress is going to take over this process, they need to include paid sick days,” tweeted Teamsters general president Sean O’Brien.