Rank-and-file rail workers voiced frustration and anger late Monday after Joe Biden—a self-described “pro-labor president”—urged Congress to pass legislation forcing unions to accept a contract agreement without any paid sick days, a step that would avert a looming nationwide strike and deliver a win for the profitable railroad industry.
“By forcing workers into an agreement which doesn’t address basic needs like healthcare and sick time, President Joe Biden is choosing railroads over workers and the economy,” said Ross Grooters, an engineer and co-chair of Railroad Workers United, an inter-union alliance that supports public ownership of the national rail system.
Another worker was more blunt in a text message to labor reporter Jonah Furman: “Words cannot express how fucking livid I am at this administration… people in power, LIKE HIM, would rather screw workers than stand up to fucking robber barons.”
While Congress could put forth legislation that would improve the tentative White House-brokered contract deal announced in September, Biden made clear he wants lawmakers “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.”
That agreement, which has been rejected by more than half of the country’s unionized rail workforce, does not include a single day of paid sick leave and would only allow three penalty-free days off per year for medical visits. But even that time off is heavily constrained: It’s unpaid; can only be taken on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday; and must be scheduled at least 30 days in advance.
“These agreements were rejected because the quality of life rail workers and their families have today is abysmal,” Ash Anderson, a member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED)—one of the unions that voted against ratifying the tentative deal—wrote on Facebook. “There were no provisions to improve the quality of life for rail workers, who continue to be exploited by companies that are earning record-breaking profits while their service suffers and they cut their workforce to the bone.”
I just want Americans to see the stories of these men and women, the stories of their families. I want Americans to recognize that these workers are being driven out of their chosen profession by the continued harsh conditions, callous discipline, long hours far from home, and basic lack of respect and dignity in the work that President Biden just stated was too important to allow to stop, regardless the cost.
The railroads’ record profit margins are safe, their exorbitant stock buybacks and shareholder returns are secured. Americans will have all the conveniences available this busy shopping season. Rail workers will work sick to make sure it’s all done, because that’s what they have to do.
Shortly following Biden’s statement, outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced her chamber will move this week to take up legislation requiring rail workers to accept the tentative deal and denying them their right to strike. Without a contract deal or congressional action, a strike could begin early next month.
Echoing Biden, Pelosi insisted that lawmakers are “reluctant to bypass the standard ratification process” and declared that “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.”
“But,” the Democratic leader added, “we must act to prevent a catastrophic nationwide rail strike, which would grind our economy to a halt.”
The White House’s intervention answers the call of rail giants and corporate lobbying groups—including the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce—that have been pushing for and banking on congressional action as contract talks remain at a standstill, with rail companies refusing to drop their opposition to workers’ basic sick leave demands.
Rail unions had originally pushed for 15 days of paid sick leave, a policy that rail companies estimated would cost around $688 million a year—less than what billionaire Warren Buffett, the CEO of BNSF Railway’s parent company, added to his net worth in a single day last week.
The unions have since moved down to asking for four paid sick days, but rail companies remain opposed even as they rake in huge profits and enrich their executives and shareholders. The Lever reported in September that “the CEOs of five of the largest railroad conglomerates have been paid more than $200 million in the last three years, and company shareholders have been boosted by nearly $200 billion in stock buybacks and dividends over the last dozen years.”
Matthew Weaver, a carpenter with BMWED, told The New York Times that Biden’s decision to step in and force workers to accept a contract agreement opposed by a majority of rail union members “seems to cater to the oligarchs.”
“All of rail labor is going to suffer because of this,” said Weaver.
Grooters of Railroad Workers United argued that Congress “should ignore White House shortsightedness and introduce the labor-friendly version of a railroad bill”—but it’s not yet clear whether progressive lawmakers in the House or Senate will attempt to force amendments to the tentative agreement.
Citing unnamed sources, CNN reported late Monday that “following House passage, Senate action could occur later this week or next.”
“The Senate is expected to have the votes to break a filibuster on the bill to avert a potential railway strike, according to those sources,” the outlet noted. “There are likely to be at least 10 Republicans who will vote with most Senate Democrats to overcome a 60-vote threshold. The only question is how quickly the bill can come to the floor since any senator can object, dragging out the process and delaying a quick vote.”
“Sources are watching Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders closely to see if he upends an effort to get a quick vote,” CNN added. “A Sanders spokesman declined to comment.”
Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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