On Dec. 1, the U.S. Senate approved a joint resolution that imposed a tentative agreement onto freight railroad workers and banned them from striking over a labor dispute in which workers were asking for paid sick leave.
Democratic U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, who represent Washington, joined the majority of both parties to pass the bill. Ten Republicans, four Democrats and independent democratic socialist senator Bernie Sanders voted against the legislation. President Joe Biden signed the bill into law on Dec. 2.
Freight rail is among the most profitable industries in the United States. Between 2010 and 2021, companies paid shareholders $196 billion in dividends and stock buybacks. Just four companies operate most of the national rail network, which critics say has led to a deterioration in the country’s supply chain.
Members of four rail unions, which make up a majority of freight rail workers represented by the 12 unions across the country, voted recently to reject the agreement facilitated by the Biden administration in September. Workers set a deadline to begin striking on Dec. 9.
Freight carrier companies and unions have been in bitter negotiations over labor conditions for more than three years. Among the disagreements is the inability for rail workers to take time off. Under the previous contract, workers received no paid sick leave and could be penalized for taking time off to go to the hospital.
While workers had demanded 15 paid sick days, the final agreement only provided one day and three doctor’s appointments a year. According to the agreement, the medical appointments must be taken on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday and scheduled at least 30 days in advance. Carriers also put restrictions on when a worker can take their sick day.
On Nov. 30, the House of Representatives passed an amendment by 221-207 at the behest of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) to mandate seven paid sick days to rail workers. CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal, who represents Seattle, wrote in a statement that “[w]hile rail corporations have amassed billions in profits and reduced their workforces, railway workers are asking for nothing more than paid sick days to look after loved ones and their own health.”
The Senate failed to break the filibuster on the sick day amendment, leading to it not being included in the final bill.
Rail unions were furious at the decision by self-proclaimed “proud pro-labor” Biden and Congressional Democrats to impose the agreement and bar them from going on strike. Biden justified the strikebreaking law by saying that any work stoppage would have devastating impacts on the U.S. economy.
Herb Krohn, the Washington legislative director for the largest rail union, SMART Transportation Division, said that he was “very displeased” with the federal government’s imposition. “If push comes to shove, Congress will force us back to work,” he said.
Krohn said that union members were suffering under “very regressive” carrier policies, producing a hostile work environment. He also added that it was inherently unfair for workers to be denied their right to strike and exercise their “economic clout.”
According to Krohn, the strikebreaking law will only worsen supply chain disruptions. He said that many workers, fed up with their working conditions, may leave the profession after they receive retroactive back pay awarded by the agreement. This projected attrition may lead to disruptions and reduced freight rail service.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Dec. 7-13, 2022 issue.