Why workers are up in arms over the rail strike intervention

The rail industry can thank Congress and the president for helping it secure $321 million in annual profits at the expense of workers.

SOURCEIndependent Media Institute
Image Credit: REUTERS/John Sibley

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech T.V. and Pacifica stations. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.

The United States Senate acted in a show of rare unity recently in voting 80 to 15 to pass a bill forcing rail workers to accept their employers’ contract offer without a strike. There was no such unity to pass an amendment introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) that would have given rail workers seven paid sick leave days. That bill did not pass even though 52 senators voted for it, as it failed the requisite 60-vote threshold.

According to the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, “Almost every elected member of Congress campaigns on being ‘for the working class.’” But, in response to the failure to pass the sick leave amendment, the Brotherhood pointed out that Congress’s actions “demonstrated they are for the corporate class.”

The Brotherhood is among several unions representing a little more than 100,000 people working in the rail industry. This is more than half of all rail workers in the U.S. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Because trains operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, railroad workers’ schedules may vary to include nights, weekends, and holidays. Most work full time, and some work more than 40 hours per week.” A job so crucial that the entire U.S. economy is dependent on it pays a median salary of less than $65,000 a year with no paid sick leave whatsoever.

Explaining why Congress felt it necessary to pass a bill to make it illegal for rail workers to strike for better conditions, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “A nationwide rail shutdown would be catastrophic—a shutdown would grind our economy to a halt, and every family would feel the strain.” President Joe Biden similarly explained that the congressional intervention in averting a rail strike would help avoid “devastating economic consequences for workers, families, and communities across the country.”

An economy that devastates workers, leaving them underpaid for a high-pressure job with no sick days, is apparently just fine.

Instead of using its power to force the private rail companies to grant paid sick leave to rail workers, Congress used its levers of power to side with corporate forces rather than with workers. It chose to uplift profits over workers’ needs.

The cost of those profits is tangible and minuscule. Sanders pointed out in a tweet on November 29 that, “Guaranteeing 7 paid sick days to rail workers would cost the rail industry a grand total of $321 million a year—less than 2 percent of its profits.” Meanwhile, he added, “Rail companies spent $25.5 billion on stock buybacks and dividends this year.”

To help private rail companies secure $321 million a year in profits, Congress and the president inserted themselves into contract negotiations and sold out more than 100,000 workers.

As President Biden said in September 2021, “I intend to be the most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history.” But nearly 30 years ago as a U.S. senator—on the matter of the rail industry in particular—he was more pro-labor than he is today, becoming one of a handful of senators to vote against averting a rail strike. Then-Senator Biden, explaining his ‘no’ vote, said in 1992, “I am… concerned that we are rewarding a concerted decision of the railroads [to negotiate in bad faith] that would have caused fevered expressions of outrage by industry had the unions taken a similar step.”

Today’s congressional intervention indeed rewards the private rail industry that has been engaged in a relentless bid to cut costs in the service of profits.

Corporate media outlets, whose business model is in line with rail companies, have disproportionately amplified lawmakers’ pro-industry talking points. But what are worker unions saying?

The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, one of the unions involved, said it “does not support the notion of Congress intervening in our collective bargaining negotiations to prevent a strike.”

Instead, the union said, “If Congress truly wants to take action to improve the industry for our members, then we recommend legislation that will work to reverse the devastation of Precision Scheduled Railroading [PSR].”

Buried near the end of one article, Associated Press explained the gist of PSR without mentioning it by name, saying that, “The rail industry has aggressively cut costs everywhere and shifted its operations to rely more on fewer, longer trains that use fewer locomotives and fewer employees.”

According to rail company Union Pacific Railroad (UP), this method “keeps inventory (and supply chains) moving.” UP touts PSR’s “benefits to Shippers and Receivers,” who are the company’s’ primary customers. The company makes no mention at all of the toll this “efficiency” has taken on its workers.

Congress could have used its power to force rail companies to address the impact of PSR on workers. But instead, it used its power to side with corporate rail industry profits. It is an underlying assumption of how our society and government are structured that any intervention in the acquisition of profit is seen as a threat to the economy.

It’s no wonder rail workers feel betrayed. One Chicago worker named Rhonda Ewing told the New York Times ahead of the congressional vote, “We know it’s holiday time, which is why it’s the perfect time to raise our voices. If Biden gets involved, he takes away our leverage.”

Coming so soon after the 2022 midterm elections and far enough from the 2024 presidential election, lawmakers have few worries about losing reelection bids based on their voting record. This suggests that Congress and the president timed the votes to maximize their political leverage.

But rail workers are not likely to forget the government’s betrayal. “The political pandering and showboating by the elected officials in the Railroad’s pockets will not diminish our resolve nor remove the respect each Signalman is owed for keeping the economy afloat on a daily basis,” said the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen in a press release.

And other workers who are increasingly in solidarity with one another in an economy obviously rigged to benefit wealthy corporate employers, are angry too. The National Day Laborer Organizing Network, for example, accused Biden of siding with “wealthy bosses,” and reiterated its support for unions saying, “we will always be in solidarity with all workers.”

Unions are drawing battle lines, demanding that the government flip the script of who the national economy is supposed to benefit.

“The Federal Government inserted itself into the dispute between the railroads and the Railroad Workers under the premise that it must protect the American economy,” wrote Tony D. Cardwell, president of BMWED-IBT, one of the rail unions involved in negotiating contracts. “Yet,” he said, “when the Federal Government makes that decision, its Representatives have a moral responsibility to also protect the interests of the citizens that make this nation’s economy work—American Railroaders.”

In other words, we need an economy that works for the people, not the other way around.Cardwell warned that the lawmakers’ actions are “nothing less than anti-American, an abdication of their oath of office,” and that, “you are deemed, in my eyes, unworthy of holding office.”


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Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a radio and television show that airs on Pacifica stations KPFK and KPFA and will begin airing on Free Speech TV. She is the former founder, host and producer of KPFK Pacifica’s popular morning drive-time program “Rising Up With Sonali,” based in Los Angeles. She is also the co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit solidarity organization that funds the social, political, and humanitarian projects of RAWA.