Rail unions protest Biden’s move to have Congress impose new pact

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Several rail union leaders, plus a top rank-and-file group, are protesting Democratic President Joe Biden’s request to Congress to impose a new contract on the nation’s 115,000 freight rail workers.

But their ire may come too late. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., planned to bring the proposed four-year settlement—previously recommended by a Biden-named board—to the full House by Dec. 1. A mandated “cooling-off” period, where rail workers can’t strike and bosses can’t lock them out, expires Dec. 9.

Biden made his request after members of four of the 13 rail unions in bargaining with the big Class I freight railroads rejected the contract proposal union leaders and railroad bosses worked out, with administration mediation and pressure, in mid-September.

Leaders of all 13 unions have promised their members would honor picket lines if bosses force a strike.

Unions whose members bounced the contract included one of the largest, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of the Way Employees/Teamsters. It has 23,000 members. Workers at two other large unions split. The Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen/Teamsters narrowly approved it and the Smart-Transportation Division narrowly rejected it.

Working conditions, especially lack of paid sick leave and the railroads’ practice of docking workers who miss days, even for doctors’ appointments, until they can fire the workers, are the key issue in the rejections. The Biden-named board ducked that issue.

“This became a glaring issue during the pandemic when we had members who were forced by their employers, the railroads, to stay home and quarantine without pay,” Michael Baldwin, president of the Railroad Signalmen, told CNN. “But really it comes down to simple things like the flu for a day or two, or a sick child, and the ability to take a day or two paid.” His union was one of the four that voted the deal down.

“BMWED’s proposal would literally cost one penny of every dollar of the railroads’ record profits assuming full use by every single member. It is less than 2% of the $11.5 billion that CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific have spent alone on stock buybacks through the third quarter of 2022,” the union explained after its members rejected the pact.

“There’s a sense of hopelessness amongst a number of working railroaders,” Ron Kaminkow of Railroad Workers United, the rank-and-file group which led the campaign for “no” votes, told Politico. RWU wanted railroaders “to just vote ‘no’ if they actually believe that this thing is not good. Don’t be conned into voting for something that you really don’t want.”

“We need public pressure, not just on Congress but on the railroads, too,” BLE&T/Teamsters Legislative Director Jared Cassity told the Rick Smith Show, then repeated in a series of tweets. “They need to know the public is on our side. We need to have sick days, time off, the ability to be spouses & to be treated with respect.”

The old contract also forced workers to toil for as much as two to three weeks straight, and let railroads demand, on little notice, on workers’ one day off afterward, that they come in and sub for absent colleagues, triggering two more weeks. That didn’t change, either.

The big freight railroads, including Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific, have cut their workforces by 29% since 2014, while racking up a combined $146 billion in profits, all in response to Wall Street capitalists’ demands. The result: Mass shortages of workers and frequent delays, worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.

In his statement, Biden was sympathetic to workers’ problems, but said a strike would disrupt U.S. supply chains for everything from oil to cars to drinking water to grain, at the height of the holiday season. Railroads carry some 30-40% of the nation’s freight. Supply chain experts told CNN, however, that the problems would occur after shopping season.

“The deal provides a historic 24% pay raise for rail workers. It provides improved health care benefits. And it provides the ability of operating craft workers to take unscheduled leave for medical needs. Since that time, the majority of the unions in the industry have voted to approve the deal,” said Biden.

But in talks with both sides since the voting began, Biden Cabinet members came to “believe there is no path to resolve the dispute at the bargaining table and have recommended that we seek congressional action.”

Left unsaid was that after the four unions that rejected the deal went back to bargaining with the freight rail firms, the carriers flatly refused to even discuss—much less negotiate over—more paid sick leave.

Also left unsaid was what the next Congress, with a Republican-run House whose leaders hate workers and unions, could impose: Something far worse than what Biden’s board recommended.

But echoing a management prediction that a strike—which the bosses forced—would cost the economy $1 billion a day, Biden said it would endanger the jobs of 765,000 non-rail workers, many of them union members, in the first two weeks alone. “Communities could lose access to chemicals necessary to ensure clean drinking water. Farms and ranches across the country could be unable to feed their livestock,” he said.

“As a proud pro-labor president, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement. 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.”

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People’s World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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