While the high-stakes labor dispute on U.S. freight railroads has receded from headlines since President Joe Biden and Congress imposed a new contract last month, rail workers are continuing their fight for dignity and better conditions — albeit without the threat of a national strike on the table. “The American people should know that while this round of collective bargaining is over, the underlying issues facing the workforce and rail customers remain,” the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department said in a statement. The major underlying issue remains precision scheduled railroading (PSR), the business model adopted in recent years by Class I rail carriers like Union Pacific, BNSF, Norfolk Southern and CSX. Designed to maximize shareholder profits by cutting costs to the bone, PSR has been blamed for a dramatic reduction in the freight rail workforce, increased supply-chain congestion and deteriorating safety — all while investors rake in record profits.
The Tory government in the UK under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is mulling new anti-strike legislation that aims to crack down on the growing worker unrest spreading throughout the country. Faced with a historic cost-of-living crisis, workers across the UK made 2022 the busiest year for strikes and worker actions since the 1980s. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) have been at the forefront of Britain’s strike wave, as TRNN previously reported. They have been joined by countless workers across multiple industries, from university lecturers to mail carriers. The new anti-strike law in Parliament would force workers to cross their own picket lines to uphold a standard of “minimum service” while striking, effectively squashing the ability of workers to withhold their labor.
Rail workers across the UK, under the leadership of the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT), have begun striking again in protest against the insufficient pay offer proposed by rail authorities. The workers went on strike on December 13 and 14 and will continue action on December 16 and 17. Around 40,000 members of the RMT have joined the strike. Following a union vote in which 63.6% of its membership voted to reject Network Rail’s pay offer of a 5% retrospective rise for 2022 and a 4% pay rise in 2023. Workers at 14 train-operating companies are striking in the UK. More actions have been announced for the Christmas week as well. Workers will again step up action in the first week of January 2023.
In a stunning upset, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the 28,000-member union of railroad workers, has elected a new president. Eddie Hall, a local officer out of Division 28 in Tucson, Arizona, won against incumbent Dennis Pierce with 53 percent of the membership-wide vote. Hall will take office on January 1st, pending official certification of the results, and will lead the larger of the two unions that make up the Teamsters Rail Conference. The surprise victory is the latest fallout from a national freight rail showdown in which some 60,000 rail workers had a contract imposed on them. In the BLET, the second-largest union involved in negotiations, members ratified a deal, but many members were unhappy with the outcome.
After missing-in-action the past few weeks, some rail union chiefs have called for a major rally in Washington, DC at the Capitol Building. In addition, the unions are assisting to build rallies at rail terminals in towns and cities across the country. RWU urges all railroad workers from every craft, family, members, other working class friends and allies to take part. These rallies are intended to draw the public’s attention towards: The need for increased rail safety – prioritizing the need to maintain two-person crews. The devastating effects of so-called “precision scheduled railroading” on the nation's rail workers, shippers, passengers and economy. NOTE: The Surface Transportation Board (STB) is conducting a major hearing on this very question today. The need for paid sick leave.
The Black Agenda Report team is proud to have coined the phrases “Black misleadership class” and “Black political class.” These words cannot be uttered and written too often because they name and shame the people who work alongside the neoliberal and imperialist order in the United States while also pretending to act on behalf of Black people, whose needs are antithetical to those of the oligarchy. Congressional Black Caucus member Hakeem Jeffries is the Black politico of the moment and his rise is a cautionary tale which must be followed closely. Jeffries will be the new Minority Leader of the House of Representatives when the 118th Congress convenes in January 2023. He is the first Black person to head a legislative branch in the U.S. but those who are on the exalted list of firsts are often those who bear watching the most.
The Congressional decision to prohibit railroad workers from going on strike and force them to accept a contract that meets few of their demands is part of the class war that has defined American politics for decades. The two ruling political parties differ only in rhetoric. They are bonded in their determination to reduce wages; dismantle social programs, which the Bill Clinton administration did with welfare; and thwart unions and prohibit strikes, the only tool workers have to pressure employers. This latest move against the railroad unions, where working conditions have descended into a special kind of hell with massive layoffs, the denial of even a single day of paid sick leave, and punishing work schedules that include being forced to “always be on call,” is one more blow to the working class and our anemic democracy.
Probably the most important US labor event of 2022 has been the 115,000 US railroad workers and their unions attempt to bargain a new contract with the super profitable Railroad companies. As of December 2, 2022, however, that negotiations has not turned out well for the workers. The US government—the Biden administration and Democrat controlled US Congress with the help of virtually all the Republicans—have repeatedly intervened on the side of the management in the negotiations. Beginning last September, that intervention has ensured that the workers would not be able to strike in order to advance their interests and demands. This past week both the administration and Congress have made a railroad strike illegal by passing legislation to that effect.
While Railroad Workers United (RWU) finds it despicable – but not surprising – that both political parties opted to side with Big Business over working people yesterday and vote against the interests of railroad workers - not once, but twice, within hours. We suffered a one-two punch at the hands of, first the Democratic Party; the second served up by the Republicans. First, responding to the wishes of President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the House voted to legislate a contract that the majority of U.S. freight rail workers had previously voted to reject. The Senate would quickly follow suit. In effect, their actions simply overrode our voices and desires. Rail workers – like all workers – should have the right to bargain collectively and to freely engage in strike activity if and when the members see fit and when they democratically elect to do so.
What I can share is that we have almost certainly averted the chance of a legal, national rail strike. The House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to step in and force rail laborers to accept the tentative agreement brokered by the White House in September. The House also passed legislation guaranteeing seven days of paid sick leave. The Senate likely votes Thursday on that legislation. We’ve seen an interesting range of politicians speak out about Congress’ intervention into this strike. As you could expect, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., spoke out against any legislation that would not deliver paid sick leave to rail workers. But so too did Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Whether they will merely tweet about sick leave or actually vote to ensure it is another question.
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: I am calling on Congress to pass legislation immediately to adopt the Tentative Agreement between railroad workers and operators – without any modifications or delay – to avert a potentially crippling national rail shutdown. 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.
Despite the intervention of the Biden administration, after nearly three years of contract negotiations, workers who operate the nation’s freight railroads are poised to go on a nationwide strike as early as next Friday. “Our members, and all rail labor in general, are frustrated,” said Matt Weaver, a Toledo-based rail worker and member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED). “It feels like there’s no respect for us.” Last week, the two largest rail unions announced a split decision on whether to approve a tentative, five-year agreement brokered ahead of a strike that was previously set to begin in September. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) narrowly ratified the agreement with 53.5% of members voting in favor, while the deal was rejected by just over 50% of train and engine service members of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers-Transportation Division (SMART-TD).
Which side are you on? It’s the most fundamental question in politics, and President Joe Biden has given us his answer. Last night, the White House released a statement calling on Congress to impose a contract on railway workers, with more than a week remaining before the December 9 strike deadline. Describing himself as a “proud pro-labor president” and expressing his “reluctance,” Biden nonetheless indicates his intention to try and force terms on workers that many already rejected earlier this year. The rhetorical triangulation was even more glaring in the statement released by outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which hit many of the same notes as Biden’s while adding, “As we consider Congressional action, we must recognize that railroads have been selling out to Wall Street to boost their bottom lines, making obscene profits while demanding more and more from railroad workers.” Well, indeed.
Atlanta, Georgia - Around 55% of all US rail labor rejected a tentative contract agreement brokered in September, leaving the door open for a potential strike that could cost the country's economy an estimated $2 billion per day. According to Railroad Workers United Treasurer Hugh Sawyer, the decision was a long time coming. A locomotive engineer at Norfolk Southern with 34 years' experience, Sawyer has witnessed firsthand how working conditions on the railways have deteriorated over the last decade. He attributes those changes to private companies putting profits over people, as corporate execs and financiers bring in record sums while workers are left with scraps. The labor concerns on the rail lines extend beyond meager wages to quality-of-life issues stemming from punitive attendance policies, scheduling changes, and the inability to guarantee time off.
The four unions that have now rejected the tentative agreement are the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes (representing 19% of unionized workforce in negotiations), Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (6%), International Association of Boilermakers and Blacksmiths (1%) and SMART-TD, excluding yardmasters, (30%). The eight unions that voted to ratify the tentative agreement (and the percentage of the total their members represent) are the American Train Dispatchers Association (1%), BLET (20%), Brotherhood Railway Carmen (7%), International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (5%), International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (5%), Mechanical Division of SMART (1%), National Conference of Firemen and Oilers (2%), and the Transportation Communications Union (3%).