Railroad workers lashed out at both Republicans and Democrats on Friday after Congress and President Joe Biden blocked their unions from striking over paid sick leave and unsafe work scheduling, with militant workers calling for the various railroad craft unions to unite under one organization and consider allying with a third political party.
Biden signed legislation on Friday finalizing a labor agreement with rail carrier companies that multiple unions representing more than half of railroad workers rejected in November after two years of bitter negotiations. Biden bills himself as valiant supporter of organized labor, but the holiday shopping season loomed over his decision to buck the rail unions, with the president warning on Friday of a “economic catastrophe at a very bad time of the calendar” before changing the subject to boast about job gains and lower gasoline prices.
“I think many trade unionists with any experience would see this for what it is — this is Reaganomics in action, this is the Reaganomics with the face of Joe Biden,” said Marilee Taylor, a labor organizer and recently retired locomotive engineer, in an interview. Taylor, who worked on freight trains for 28 years, recalled President Ronald Reagan’s controversial decision in 1981 to bust a strike called by air traffic controllers by stepping in and firing 11,000 union members from their jobs.
Taylor and other workers say claims by Biden and industry groups that a strike or work slowdown would inevitably cause widespread economic damage are overblown. The point of a strike is to leverage collective power and win concessions from profit-hungry employers, not to spend weeks without a paycheck. Retailers are prepared for supply chain logjams, and the vice president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association recently said “we will still have Christmas this year” if railroad unions call a strike.
The greater threat, railroad unions argue, is workers on the job for days a time without sufficient time off to see a doctor or recover from illness as the nation continues to face COVID-19 and other viruses. In June, a locomotive engineer died of a heart attack on the job after missing a doctor’s appointment to avoid being penalized by BNSF, a major rail carrier company.
Most rail workers do not have paid sick leave or flexible work schedules and can be penalized for missing work, and Taylor said workers are exhausted and looking for other jobs. House Democrats passed separate legislation adding seven days of sick leave to the deal, but the companion bill failed in the Senate after 42 Republicans and one lone Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voted against it.
Jason Doering, general secretary of Railroad Workers United, an independent advocacy group of union members, said the “one-two punch” from both political parties is “despicable.”
“Politicians are happy to voice platitudes and heap praise upon us for our heroism throughout the pandemic, the essential nature of our work, the difficult and dangerous and demanding conditions of our jobs,” Doering said in a statement Friday. “Yet when the steel hits the rail, they back the powerful and wealthy Class One rail carriers every time.”
SMART-TD, one of the rail unions that voted against the labor agreement, said workers are demanding paid sick leave out of necessity, not preference. Everyday railroad workers must decide between showing up to work sick and stressed out or facing penalties from employers.
“It is extremely disappointing that 43 Senators voted to prioritize the corporate greed of rail carriers and CEOs over the needs and quality-of-life improvements that our members so desperately deserve,” SMART-TD leadership said in a statement on Thursday.
The SMART-TD union, reserving its ire for Manchin and the GOP, thanked Biden and other top Democrats for negotiating in support of railroad workers at the negotiating table and in Congress. Federal law allows Congress to intervene in a rail strike, and the White House joined negotiations between workers and rail bosses earlier this year after at least two rail unions voted to strike, resulting in a series of temporary agreements. Averting a strike — and any economic consequences — ahead of the midterm elections was a top priority for Biden and the Democrats.
However, Taylor said the final agreement forced by Congress and the White House provides concessions to rail bosses who are determined to maintain precision scheduled railroading, a work scheduling policy that many workers loathe for prioritizing cost cutting and shareholder returns over the safety and well-being of workers.
“Good hard workers, with experience and capability, are saying, ‘I have to have a life, I have to be with my family for some time of the day, I have to have time for my health,” Taylor said.
Biden said he is a longtime supporter of paid sick leave and pledged to continue fighting for sick leave for railroad workers, but he did not propose any legislation or offer executive action. As reporters shouted questions about paid sick leave, Biden appeared to say that Republicans should “see the light” before exiting the White House briefing room on Friday.
Biden presented the decision as a difficult choice but the right one for protecting the broader economy ahead of the holidays. Union members saw a president who simply sided with the bosses. Taylor said a truly pro-labor president would have vetoed the bill or refused to sign it until carriers commit to paid sick leave, and use the bully pulpit to blame the industry and its Wall Street shareholders for refusing to concede its “inhumane” scheduling policies if the dispute ultimately shut down the rails.
“Biden has just done one of the most undemocratic, anti-worker and across the board anti-labor actions by, first of all, promoting governmental state intervention in these negotiations,” Taylor said, adding that essential workers in education and health care now see that their right to strike is threatened both by the state and a Democratic president.
Still, Biden would have his political cake and eat it too had Manchin and a handful of Republicans voted in favor of paid sick leave for rail workers. In a statement, Railroad Workers United said fellow workers should explore other political options now that politicians in both major parties failed to have their backs. Railroad workers are currently represented by a web of roughly a dozen craft unions, and workers should consider uniting under one powerful union, the group said. The group has also proposed a public takeover of the rails to break the grip of private companies.
Ron Kaminkow, a locomotive engineer and organizer with Railroad Workers United, said politicians and union leaders have “played” railroad workers for more than a century under a broken system upheld by ancient federal laws.
“The fiasco of recent months will show that perhaps the time has come for railroad workers to push for a unified and powerful labor organization of all crafts, together with a political party that will better serve the interest of not just railroad workers but all working-class people,” Kaminkow said in a statement on Friday.