Throughout the last three months, railway corporations, US lawmakers, and rail workers have been in a tug-of-war regarding working conditions that some claim are “inhumane.” Most recently, on November 30, the House of Representatives pushed through legislation that would force rail workers to accept an agreement that four unions have voted against.
Faced with the prospect of strike action by rail workers, the US House of Representatives has fast-tracked a bill to the US Senate that would legislatively impose terms on rail workers. A separate vote in the House also added, with a narrower margin, a provision of seven paid sick days to the bill. CNN has reported that “additional sick leave provision was added at the insistence of progressive members of the House who had threatened to scuttle the rail agreement bill if sick leave wasn’t included” but that the Senate could still “pass the original rail agreement without including the sick leave provision.”
It remains unclear right now which version of the bill is likely to be signed into law, as Biden has suggested that his foremost priority is simply averting a potential strike.
On September 15, the Biden administration narrowly averted a nationwide rail workers strike that could have brought the US economy to a standstill by creating a tentative agreement between workers and rail corporations. Workers had been organizing against the corporate practices of reducing workforces and not guaranteeing sick days in order for rail companies to squeeze more profit out of their employees. Rail workers power the transport of commodities and are therefore essential for the smooth functioning of the entire US economy. That the White House itself was compelled to intervene in this private-sector labor dispute is a testament to the enormous power that rail employees possess.
However, on October 10, the third largest rail union in the US rejected Biden’s tentative agreement, as it failed to address the lack of sick days and the inconsistent scheduling that makes it extremely difficult for workers to attend to personal and health needs. And, on November 21, the largest rail worker union, International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers–Transportation Division (SMART-TD), voted to reject the agreement as well, alongside three other rail unions. This put the option of strikes back on the table, to begin as early as December 9.
Many rail workers currently have zero sick days, forcing them to work when they are either sick or have family emergencies. If workers do indeed take sick time, they are penalized in a cruel corporate point system that could put their jobs in jeopardy. This is called “Precision Scheduled Railroading,” a program that has systematically cut workforces and sick time, forcing workers to be on call for longer stretches of time and do more work for the same pay. The two largest railway companies — BNSF, which is owned by multi-billionaire Warren Buffet, and Union Pacific — have implemented forms of this policy in order to generate larger profits, at the expense of workers’ health and needs.
Although in the case of rail workers and the rail industry this policy has a specific name, it is similar to what workers in the US experience across industries: cutting corners by understaffing for the sake of making more money.
Rail worker unions have been campaigning for as many as 15 sick days per year; the tentative agreement reached would have offered them only one. While Biden had initially run for president on the promise of guaranteeing seven sick days to all US workers, in the case of rail workers. he has seemingly reneged on this promise.
In response to the rejection of the tentative agreement, Biden urged Congress to pass legislation to force workers to accept the agreement as it stands. “We cannot let our strongly held conviction for better outcomes for workers deny workers the benefits of the bargain they reached, and hurl this nation into a devastating rail freight shutdown,” Biden said in a November 28 statement.
This move has placed the Democratic president to the right of the likes of ultra-conservatives such as Marco Rubio and Newt Gingrich, as Biden went as far as to say that the tentative agreement should not at all be modified, despite the guarantee of only a single sick day. “Some in Congress want to modify the deal to either improve it for labor or for management,” Biden’s statement read. “However well-intentioned, any changes would risk delay and a debilitating shutdown.”
Biden getting outflanked on labor rights by Marco Rubio and Newt Gingrich lmao. pic.twitter.com/CU8PxPeCkc
— Mac (@GoodPoliticGuy) November 29, 2022
Leading Congress members such as Nancy Pelosi fell in line with Biden, also attempting to force workers to accept an agreement that they had voted against. “I don’t like going against the ability of unions to strike,” Pelosi said on November 29, “but weighing the equities, we must avoid a strike. Jobs will be lost, even union jobs will be lost, water will not be safe, product will not be going to market.”
The legislation forcing workers to accept the agreement has already passed in the House of Representatives, and is headed for the Senate.
However, in a testament to both the unpopularity of Biden’s plan with rail workers and to the harshness of the conditions they labor under, progressive US politicians pushed through another bill, this one guaranteeing seven days of paid sick leave, which is also headed to the Senate for approval.
“Guaranteeing 7 paid sick days to rail workers would cost the rail industry a grand total of $321 million a year—less than 2% of its profits,” tweeted Senator Bernie Sanders on November 29. “Please don’t tell me the rail industry can’t afford it. Rail companies spent $25.5 billion on stock buybacks and dividends this year.” Rail transport is one of the US’s most profitable sectors, and BNSF produced “record profits” in 2021 (PDF), even as it imposed ever-stricter conditions on workers, in line with the rest of the industry.