Above photo: A Norfolk Southern freight train makes it way through Homestead, Pa. on April 27, 2022. Gene J. Puskar | AP.
As the date for a possible national railroad strike nears, President Joe Biden stepped in this week to force a contract on the railroad workers.
On Monday, November 28, the While House released this statement, which begins with:
After some encouraging words from progressives Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Jamaal Bowman on Tuesday, Lauren K. Gurley reported today that the Congressional Progressive Caucus intends to fall in step behind President Biden.
The pushback by railroad workers and their supporters was swift.
A group called Historians in Support of the Railway Workers issued an open letter to the President calling on him to use the power of his office to support the workers’ demands. The letter reads, in part:
Railroad Workers United, a coalition of 14 railroad labor unions, also published an open letter to Congress and the President urging them to refrain from efforts to subvert the railroad workers’ rights. They went on to demand that the railroads be brought under public ownership to serve the public interest and that Congress pass laws for paid family and sick leave for all workers, fully fund the National Labor Relations Board and pass the PRO Act.
Dear President Biden, Democratic Leaders Pelosi and Schumer, Republican Leaders McConnell and McCarthy, and all members of the United States Congress:
We are sending you this letter to urge you to rescind and reject President Biden’s proposal for Congress to force rail carriers and rail workers to accept a tentative contract agreement that has been rejected by four out of the twelve railroad unions. These four unions represent the majority of workers on the nation’s freight railroads, and by pushing through a tentative agreement that a majority of rank-and-file union members have declared completely unsatisfactory, President Biden and Congress would be overriding the democratically expressed will of railroad workers.
While the tentative agreement provides significant wage increases, workers on the railroads have stated clearly and repeatedly that their fight is not just about money. Railroad workers are fighting for the right to live—and have a life—outside of work.
The freight rail industry is structured as a non-competitive oligopoly that is dominated by seven rail carriers and operates at the behest of Wall Street, prioritizing the maximization of profit for rail executives and shareholders, even if it comes at the expense of endangering the broader public and irreparably damaging the supply chain. In the past few decades, the rail industry has adopted the Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) model, which has benefited investors at the cost of railroad workers and the public at large. As noted in the Presidential Emergency Board Report #250, because of the PSR model, railroad companies have reduced the workforce by about 30 percent in 6 years, have instituted attendance models which pressure workers to work through exhaustion, reduced safety and checking procedures, all in order to reduce costs and increase profits.
In fact, the railroad industry is the most profitable industry in the country. However, the billions of dollars of profit comes at the cost of railroaders being on call virtually 24/7, unable to access routine health care, missing the deaths of their loved ones and the birth of their children, and dying by the hundreds in work accidents. It has also come at the cost of the broader public, as PSR has created a situation where there are not enough working railroaders to service the demand which the rail industry faces, making it a direct cause for the current supply-chain crisis and a key contributor to inflation.
The central demand of railroad workers has been increased days of sick leave which has been wholly absent from the tentative agreement. It is for this that workers are willing to go on strike. Railroad workers have been without a contract for over 3 years, dealing with these issues without resolution and without support from the Congress and Presidency. Urgent action has only taken place after the urging of big business not of workers.
After a coalition of over 400 business groups sent a letter on Monday to Congress to call for immediate action to prevent a railroad strike, President Biden’s administration responded swiftly, urging members of Congress to override the will of the railroad workers, enshrine the tentative agreement into law, and force railroad workers back to work.
Senator Sanders has tweeted that he will “block consideration of the rail legislation until a roll call vote occurs on guaranteeing 7 paid sick days to rail workers in America”. We applaud this effort but we also note that rail workers are fighting for 15 days of sick leave and that the United States is the only country in the developed world that does not guarantee paid sick leave. Under the threat of a railroad strike, which will cripple the US economy if executed, the opportunity has opened up for all working people in the country to stand in solidarity with railroad workers and demand what we deserve, the right to live in dignity.
While we are stuck at an impasse in the railroads, almost 50 thousand graduate student workers in the UC system are striking for better pay and conditions, with a key demand being a Cost of Living Adjustment(COLA). They are joined by the thousands of Starbucks and Amazon workers who have unionized their workplace and are currently bargaining for a contract, by the Warrior Met Coal United Mine Workers who have been on strike for 19 months, by the thousands of tenants who have formed tenant unions and are fighting for better housing, by nurses and teachers and various segments of all working people in the country who are all fighting the same struggle, in different forms, for a better world.
As members of Congress debate amendments to the Tentative Agreement in order to avert a railroad strike, we urge Congress and the President to also take hold of this historic opportunity to empower all working people. As such we urge Congress to adopt the following demands:
Public Ownership of the Railroads: To deal with the current supply chain crisis, Congress must take control of rail infrastructure as is done the world over and operate it under the public interest.
Universal Paid Family and Sick Leave: The United States is the only developed country that does not guarantee paid leave. Our members of Congress have the privilege of enjoying paid family and sick leave which must be expanded to include all working people.
Pass the PRO Act and Fund the NLRB: Congress must step up and ensure that the right to organize for working people is protected through the passage of the PRO Act and also ensure that the NLRB is properly funded to accommodate the sharp increase in unionization.
Railroad Workers United
SMART-TD, the largest railroad union and one that voted against the recommendations of the Presidential advisory Board, wrote a statement opposing the White House and Congress’ interference in their negotiations:
Without Congressional intervention to force a contract, railroad workers may go on strike as early as December 9. If a contract is forced on workers, many workers may leave the industry. The best response by the White House and Congress to save the railroads is to listen to the workers and fully support their legitimate demands.