A potential showdown between organized labor and Wall Street looms over the world of freight trains: An influential railroad workers group is urging fellow union members to reject a tentative labor agreement that has prevented an industry-wide strike, and to fight for public ownership of railroads. Negotiations are tense, and the unions are telling members that every vote counts.
Fearing further stress on supply chains and the economy ahead of the midterm elections, President Joe Biden convened an emergency board to negotiate a tentative agreement between rail carriers and unions threatening a nationwide strike. Railroad Workers United (RWU), an advocacy group of rank-and-file workers, recently called on fellow union members to reject the tentative agreement in a vote scheduled for early December, and to strike if necessary.
The tentative agreement announced in September by two major unions calls for an immediate 14 percent wage increase, but concerns over working conditions, health insurance and medical leave remain. SMART, a union representing sheet metal, air and rail workers, recently told its members that the tentative agreement is still being finalized, and it will be up to the rank and file to vote yes or no on the deal.
A nationwide rail strike would incapacitate shipping and force rail companies and the public to contend with the demands of railroad workers, who say their employers have maximized profits while safety and working conditions deteriorate. BNSF Railway, one of the top freight rail operators, made $23 billion in revenue in 2021 alone.
While RWU is urging the rank-and-file to fight for a better contract with their employers, the group says the ultimate solution to the problems raised at the negotiating table is a public takeover of the railroads for freight trains.
Ross Grooters, a co-chair of the RWU steering committee and a locomotive engineer out of Iowa, said rail workers are facing off against billion-dollar companies that run one of the most profitable industries in the nation. Rail companies, such as Union Pacific and BNSF Railway, have prioritized profits over their workers, leaving skeleton crews to operate massive and potentially dangerous freight trains.
“These companies are making decisions based on speculative financial investment versus running a freight system for what it needs to be run for, which is our supply chain that keeps the economy running,” Grooters said in an interview with Truthout. “When we see that affects workers, we know there are other ways of running infrastructure where you can put those resources into ensuring that you can have adequate safe staffing, ensuring that it is collectively the country or the world benefiting versus just a handful of very rich shareholders.”
RWU is a militant, rank-and-file advocacy group, not one of the multiple craft unions negotiating with rail companies for a new labor contract. RWU panned the tentative contract deal that railroad workers will vote on in December, arguing there has been little improvement to a set of recommendations brokered by the White House. Disputes over staffing and extremely limited paid sick leave remain, and the four major unions party to the tentative agreement are preparing their members for an up or down vote.
“If we are going to win the kinds of things we want to see in the workplace, to make it a better and more healthy place to work, where we can live lives outside of the railroad, we need to think very differently in how we approach our position in contract and bargaining,” Grooters said. “We need to be thinking about these big and bold things, how the ownership model is just extracting wealth and making railroads more unsafe and harming the long-term health of the industry.”
RWU says its call to reject the tentative agreement is based on overwhelming opposition expressed by the rank-and-file. For RWU members, even striking for a better contract is not the long-term solution. Their “big and bold” idea is a public takeover of the railways, which are currently owned and run by private companies that have plenty of financial incentives to reject the efforts of unions to improve staffing and safety conditions.
“The [freight] rail industry is alone as the sole means of conveyance that is held privately. Highways, inland waterways, seaports and airports are all in public hands,” said Paul Lindsey, a RWU member and locomotive engineer, in a statement. “Given the industry’s inability to grow and expand and to adequately meet the needs of shippers, communities, passengers, commuters and workers, it is time that it too become a public entity.”
Taking the rails public — and defeating Wall Street — would likely require an act of Congress and support from Biden, who was known for riding passenger trains during his many years in the Senate. The proposal could also draw support from myriad shipping and industrial companies that rely on freight trains to transport critical fuels and other products. They want to know that their freight will get to its destination on time and safely.
RWU is also asking for support from the public and social movements, as we all depend on railroads and railroad workers to keep the economy functioning. Grooters said public ownership would not just benefit consumers at the end of the supply chain, it could also lead the way for public investments and improvements in infrastructure that would help the U.S. catch up with most other wealthy countries, where pollution and traffic jams are reduced by modern, high-speed passenger trains owned by the public.
“It’s a lot of work, there is no easy path to this, but if there are organizations that want to support us and build a campaign, we at RWU are willing to be partners and pull everything in that direction,” Grooters said.