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“Congress can pass a law to bar a strike, but it cannot move the nation’s freight without rail workers if those workers decide to take a stand against Biden’s undemocratic move.”
By Marilee Taylor and Geoff Mirelowitz
November 30, 2022 — On Monday, November 28, President Biden called on Congress to impose a national contract on railroad workers that has been rejected by four unions that represent a majority of rail union members. He claimed there is “no path to resolve the dispute at the bargaining table.” He then sanctimoniously described himself as a “proud pro-labor president.”
The facts show otherwise. Biden’s action flies in the face of the reasonable demands of union members. His action is anti-democratic, seeking to deny railroad workers the right to use their unions to fight for their interests.
During more than two years of negotiations the billionaire owners of the nation’s railroads were utterly indifferent to the most important issues affecting the lives of their employees. In September the Biden administration stepped in, hours before a strike deadline, to broker a tentative agreement (TA). The carriers and top officials of the 12 rail unions accepted the TA. That deal was subject to vote by the rank and file in each union and was immediately controversial among the membership.
Railroad Workers United (RWU), which describes itself as “an inter-union, cross-craft solidarity ‘caucus’ of railroad workers, and their supporters, from all crafts, all carriers, and all unions across North America,” led a campaign to reject the TA. It explained the deal “ignores workers’ repeated requests to control their own lives by reworking our entire scheduling system in a way that gives the railroads absolute and unchallenged control over our lives and our time. Oppressive attendance policies will remain in place, and workers can still not take time for unplanned situations of sickness and exhaustion.”
With the voting completed the results were mixed. Eight of the twelve unions voted to approve the proposed contract, while four opposed it. However, two of the four — SMART TD representing primarily conductors, brakemen and switchmen, and BMWED representing workers who maintain tracks, bridges, buildings, and other structures—are among the three largest rail unions. Members of the BLET, the third of the three largest unions representing primarily engineers, only approved the agreement by a vote of 53.5% in favor to 46.5% against. Members of the Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen also rejected the TA as did the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers.
BLET President Dennis Pierce acknowledged how unpopular the TA is among rank-and-file workers. Business Insider reported that “Pierce said it means a lot that over two-thirds of BLET showed up in record numbers to vote and have a say in their future. Of those who showed out, 46.5% voted against ratifying the contract — pointing to an engaged membership that’s still torn. Members are especially fired up about a lack of paid time off.”
‘Not only engaged but enraged’
Pierce and some other top union officials urged ratification of the TA. But even Pierce acknowledged, “The things the railroads have done operationally with their business practices have really alienated their workforce. And I’ve told a lot of people, they’re not only engaged, they’re enraged. The way they’ve been treated over the last three to five years on a lot of these class one railroads,” Pierce continued, “is why they’re so involved, because they’ve been, I think, so mistreated all for the sake of profit when it comes to how these railroads run their operations right now.
“Both votes were close,” Pierce told Insider. “They [SMART TD] barely failed, we [BLET] barely ratified is one way to look at it. That’s because we’re in the cab of the locomotives together every day.”
Jared Cassity, the national legislative director at SMART TD and a conductor, told the Washington Post, “It’s about attendance policies, sick time, fatigue, and the lack of family time,” Cassity said. “A lot of these things that cannot be seen but are felt by our membership. It’s destroying their livelihoods.”
For more information on these issues see “Railroad Track Maintenance Workers Reject Proposed National Contract” and “BNSF Railroad Workers Resist Cruel Attendance Policy.”
Railroad Workers United summed up the situation in a November 21 press release following the BLET and SMART TD voting results:
“With votes now tabulated from every rail union, unions representing over half of rail labor have rejected their proposed contracts. And in practically all votes, the margin of separation has been slim. Clearly, there is no consensus on the question of the Tentative Agreement in this round of bargaining.
“Thousands of railroad workers have not had a raise in three years and face record inflation but have continued to hold out for what they believe they deserve. According to RWU Co-Chair Gabe Christenson, ‘Despite being straight-jacketed by the Railway Labor Act (RLA), starved into submission, and facing intense political and economic pressure to accept the contract and move on, more than half of railroad workers have had the strength to reject the contract.’ Railroad Workers United applauds all fellow workers who have displayed the fortitude to stand firm and fight for what they believe they deserve. We believe organizing this core opposition to the current tentative agreement is critical in achieving future contract victories.”
A November 29 RWU statement headlined, “Rail Workers Unhappy with Biden Call to Subvert Strike, Mandate Contract,” states, “Unfortunately, the ‘most labor-friendly president’ has opted to side with Big Business and call for a thwarting of railroad workers’ right to strike.”
RWU General Secretary Jason Doering said, “Despite making record profits year after year, pumping up their stock prices to unheard-of levels, downsizing the workforce by furloughing 30% of the employees and becoming some of the most profitable corporations on Wall Street, the Class One carriers somehow cannot afford to provide sick time for their hard-working and dedicated employees.”
“A call to Congress to act immediately to pass legislation that adopts tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave ignores the Railroad Workers’ concerns,” said a November 29 statement by the BMWED. “It both denies Railroad Workers their right to strike while also denying them the benefit they would likely otherwise obtain if they were not denied their right to strike.”
Immediately following Biden’s statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued her own statement supporting Biden’s move and promised to put legislation on the House floor “this week.”
The web site Politico reported, “Considering that key GOP lawmakers have endorsed this approach, it is likely that any legislation would have enough support to overcome Democratic objectors.”
A few voices in Congress have expressed hesitation about Biden’s demand. Senator Bernie Sanders told CNN November 29, “We will have more to say about that later.” CNN said Sanders criticized the deal for lack of paid sick leave stating, “That is outrageous.”
Senator Marco Rubio tweeted, “The railways & workers should go back & negotiate a deal that the workers, not just the union bosses, will accept. But if Congress is forced to do it, I will not vote to impose a deal that doesn’t have the support of the rail workers.”
On November 29 Biden convened a bi-partisan meeting of top Congressional leaders who all agreed on quickly passing a bill intended to deny rail workers the right to strike. No member of Congress has spoken up clearly in favor of workers’ democratic right to withhold their labor.
A bipartisan front to deny workers’ rights
Thus, railroad workers face a united bipartisan effort by leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties to deny their reasonable demands and deprive them of the right to withhold their labor to win those demands.
Biden and other Democrats often assert their support for workers’ right to organize and join a union. However, such a right has little meaning if workers cannot use their unions to take action to defend themselves. That includes going on strike when the employers make it clear they refuse to respond to reasonable demands.
The threatened Congressional action is clearly undemocratic in another important sense. Rail workers have not always had the right to vote on their contracts. In the United Transportation Union (predecessor of SMART TD), for example, that right was not won until the 1970s. Prior to that time only chairmen of each union local cast a vote.
Today the ranks of 12 rail unions have voted and unions representing a majority have rejected the proposed agreement, as have thousands of members of unions that voted to ratify. Yet Biden and his congressional assistants would render those votes meaningless. It will not be lost on many workers that a Congress that is often unable to act due to factional maneuvering by both Democrats and Republicans, is apparently quick to act to tell rail workers their votes do not matter.
Biden and Congressional leaders are throwing their weight behind the rail bosses without even allowing the provisions of the Railway Labor Act — long-established reactionary legislation that seeks to limit the use of union power — to be fulfilled. Any strike would start on December 9 at the earliest.
Following the BLET and SMART TD voting results, union officials signaled their intention to return to the bargaining table with the carriers. In a November 21 joint statement by the two unions, SMART TD President Jeremy Ferguson said, “SMART-TD members with their votes have spoken, it’s now back to the bargaining table for our operating craft members. This can all be settled through negotiations and without a strike. A settlement would be in the best interests of the workers, the railroads, shippers and the American people.
“The ball is now in the railroads’ court,” Ferguson continued. “Let’s see what they do. They can settle this at the bargaining table. But the railroad executives who constantly complain about government interference and regularly bad-mouth regulators and Congress now want Congress to do the bargaining for them.”
Biden and Congressional leaders now aim to prevent any further national negotiations, never mind a strike.
Rail workers know well that it is likely the carriers had no intention of reopening any serious discussions on the quality-of-work-life issues that are at the heart of this dispute. The federal government now intends to relieve them of any responsibility to even pretend to do so.
This points to a challenge facing rail workers and all working people. We have no political party that will stand up for our interests. When push comes to shove the railroad owners and all the employers have two parties that will act on their behalf. The only road to a decent railroad contract and any further improvements in the lives of working people is through the exercise of our democratic rights by united labor action. Congress can pass a law to bar a strike, but it cannot move the nation’s freight without rail workers if those workers decide to take a stand against Biden’s undemocratic move.
These issues facing rail workers are not unique. The entire working class must find a way out of the dead-end of the capitalist two-party system. A labor party that speaks and acts in the interests of all working people is needed more urgently than ever.
Marilee Taylor retired in February from the BNSF railroad as a locomotive engineer and member of the BLET Division 32 in Aurora, Illinois, after more than 28 years of service. She is an active member of Railroad Workers United. Geoff Mirelowitz was a switchman on the BNSF for more than 17 years and a member of SMART Local 845 in Seattle.
 SMART TD is the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers. BMWED is the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. BLET is the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.
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Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions
I posted this article on Twitter and in one hour it had 2005 impressions. This means people are paying attention to this situation and many of the responses are favorable to the rail workers.