Working (and Striking) on the Railroad

Working on the railroad is tough, arduous and grueling. Hours are long, and workers are subject to a two-hour call to come into work, 24/7. They don’t get sick days. Any. A freight railroad engineer who suffers a coronary loses points if he takes an unpaid sick day to visit a cardiologist. Enough points lost and so is his job. So the incentive is to work sick. Put that in the covid framework: a weak, feverish, ill engineer could drop dead on the job, as the train careens out of control, all because a doctor’s appointment or phoning in sick could get him fired. In this and other ways, the lean, mean freight rail business demonstrates the barbarism of capitalism.

Not surprisingly, these rail workers may strike. Twelve rail unions must vote yes on their contract to avert a strike on November 19. That ain’t gonna happen, because two unions already voted that contract down. That means if those two strike, the unions that ratified the deal, with 11,000 members approving it so far, would probably walk off the job in sympathy. That second rail union vote against the proposed contract came on October 25. It threw cold water on the Biden administration’s accomplishment a month earlier. That was when, “eleventh-hour deal-making by the Biden administration averted the threat of an immediate work stoppage” on September 15, as Politico reported October 26.

In a blow to unions, labor secretary Marty Walsh said on November 5 that “without a deal he expects congress to step in and impose contracts on the unhappy rank-and-file members,” according to CNN November 6. Statements like this decrease union leverage at the bargaining table. By design. Not a good look for Walsh or the Biden administration. Who cares if Walsh justifies it by saying “my goal is to get those two unions back at the table with companies and get this thing done”? He could have taken another approach, like championing rank and file grievances and pressuring rail owners to make concessions. He chose not to.

The two unions voting down the contract are the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division, ready to walk out November 19, “without a new deal,” according to CNN, and the brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, who could strike December 4. “The BMWED members voted 57 percent against the proposed deal, while members of the Signalmen union voted 60 percent against the deals.” To say they don’t like this contract is an understatement. Majorities like those two mean the rank and file believes its concerns have not been addressed.

A freight rail strike before the elections would have been catastrophic for the Dems. Hence Biden’s hands-on approach. He stopped a strike in September, but now the question is, did he merely postpone it? “A strike could have frozen almost 30 percent of U.S. cargo shipments by weight,” Reuters reported September 15 on Biden’s breakthrough. It would also aggravate inflation. Hence Biden’s eagerness to finalize the deal before the midterms. That didn’t happen.

The freight rail industry is so critical to the U.S. economy, Politico argues, that “congress would face immense pressure to intervene if a strike appeared imminent.” This is a canard, for the simple reason that it could be said of many industries. It was no doubt used to justify Ronald Reagan’s scandalous firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981 for having the temerity to strike. And in this regard, congress needs no encouragement. Predictably, Republicans advocate forcing both sides to accept Biden’s emergency board recommendations, revealed to and rejected by the unions last September.

Even worse, Maryland Dem congressman Steny Hoyer already quite high-handedly laid out his repellent position on this matter, when he threatened workers with passing legislation to ban them from striking, which, as the publication the Lever noted, could violate international labor law. Labor secretary Walsh’s ominous remark that congress, with Neanderthals like Hoyer in it, might become involved, aligns with Hoyer’s threat. Kind of a “good cop/bad cop” ploy. Walsh’s comments also synchronize with the Association of American Railroads, which said “it is counting on congress to act, if new deals can’t be reached.” That’s a congress that contains right-wing fanatics like senators Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Richard Burr of North Carolina, who, CNN says, “introduced legislation that would have imposed a contract on the unions.” Josh Hartford, a machinists and aerospace union official was quoted by Politico: “Historically congress has gotten involved any time there has been a real threat of a rail shutdown. When congress gets involved, we lose.”

So let’s try to ignore for now let-them-eat-cake threats like Hoyer’s and see what rail workers are so upset about. I’ll tell you what they’re upset about: five railroad conglomerate ceos grabbed over $200 million in the past three years, while since 2010 these same railroads stuffed the pockets of their executives and stockholders with $196 billion in stock buybacks and dividends. With a bonanza like this, the Hoyers and Bidens of the world will struggle to convince railroad rank and file that they don’t deserve more than what the stingy contract they voted against offers, namely, one measly paid sick day per year.

This corporate refusal to offer sick leave bespeaks the dictatorial nature of capital, which seeks above all total control over its workers, a complete domination that nonetheless reveals a certain insecurity at the top, where permitting more than one sick day is seen as a threat – too much freedom for labor. If corporate masters removed the leash for a week of paid sick leave, who knows what workers would do with such freedom? The sky might fall in.

            So clearly the dispute isn’t just about money, because when it comes to pay, the raises in this contract on offer are acceptable. The tussle is over the totalitarian control over workers’ lives exercised by the bosses. Sick days threaten management’s dictatorship, and workers know it. They are saying, with their insistence on leave that doesn’t result in points against them, that this time corporate has gone too far. The unfreedom is too much. It is not even remotely rational.

“Our members are upset,” said Ron Behrens of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen. Politico quoted him citing the fact that the “Union Pacific rail carrier just reported a $1.9 billion profit in the quarter that ended September 30.” Of course the rank and file is upset. These companies can’t offer a contract with more than one day of paid sick leave? These companies that are literally rolling in money? Such brazen greed and lust for control of workers’ lives might make you laugh, if it weren’t so infuriating.

Other outrages abound. Politico quotes another union official Doug Dawley: “Our guys are hired by the railroads to make sure no one dies…at a crossing or dies on the tracks from train mishaps…That’s how important it is, what we do. And yet our guys make less money than food servers do in some parts of the country.” Besides, how well can someone do their job when covid clogs their lungs, but if they stayed home sick, they’d get fired?

Meanwhile “a potential showdown between organized labor and Wall Street looms over the world of freight trains,” reported Truthout October 22. This article mentions an “influential railroad workers group” calling on fellow union members not only to reject the contract, but “to fight for public ownership of railroads.”

This group, Railroad Workers United (RWU), wants a better contract than the one on offer. Truthout quoted RWU member Ross Grooters that “rail workers are facing off against billion-dollar companies that run one of the most profitable industries in the nation.” Grooters argues that “Highways, inland waterways, seaports and airports are all in public hands.” Railroads should be too. Fox news editorialized November 7 that this is socialism. Well then, we already have socialism and it works fine for waterways, seaports and airports. Really, why not railroads? They might well run better and serve the supply chain better, if they were public.

Taking the railroads public might well require an act of congress, Truthout reports. It is a radical move, of the sort Biden famously shies away from. And it would certainly need Biden’s support. But what better way for this president, eager to wear FDR’s mantle, to prove that he really deserves it? If that’s too big an ask, however, maybe Biden or his labor secretary can prove they really are friends of the unions by muscling those rail freight corporations into offering more than one paid sick day. And no, that doesn’t mean two.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Hope Deferred. She can be reached at her website.