Today, at the urging of President Biden, the House voted to pass a bill that would force railway workers to accept a contract with no paid time off in order to avoid a strike. If passed by the Senate, this would limit rail workers’ legal right to strike, limiting any leverage they have in negotiating with some of the most powerful bosses in the country.
Politicians’ have rationalized this by blaming railway workers for their bosses’ unwillingness to provide basic job protections, saying that a strike would paralyze the economy. But this also points to just how much power these workers have–they could bring the economy to a halt until their demands are met, setting a precedent that all workers deserve the right to paid time off.
In practice, Biden (who has called himself “the most pro-labor president”) and Congress are putting railway bosses’ right to profit over workers’ right to l basic health and safety on the job, even after a pandemic that has killed more than a million people in the U.S. Keeping the economy going should not come at the expense of workers’ lives.
Railway workers overwhelmingly rejected this contract, and all twelve railway unions have agreed to honor the picket line if a strike were to happen. While a separate House bill would grant workers the right to 7 sick days (short of the 15 days workers demanded), there is no guarantee it will pass in the Senate. Moreover, forcing workers to accept an inadequate contract against their will is a clear attack on unions, labor rights, and democracy. If they continue with their strike, despite what Congress says, they will need all the support they can get from other workers and unions around the country.
Tempest invites readers to click here to sign on in solidarity with the following open letter by Railroad Workers United (RWU) to President Biden and Congress. Please share the letter in your organizations, unions, and workplaces.
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 t 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
Featured Image Credit: Photo by Bosc d’Anjou of Railway Workers by Norwegian artist Boghild Road. Image modified by Tempest.
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