Railroad workers have expressed dismay at Joe Biden’s proposed solution to a looming strike that threatens to derail the US economy, which they say belies his image as the most pro-union president in generations.
As a 9 December deadline looms for the long-running labor dispute between the US’s largest railway companies and their unions, Biden has called on Congress to intervene and block a strike that could cost the US economy about $2bn a day by some estimates.
The impending strike comes as the US struggles with a cost-of-living crisis driven by a 40-year high in inflation, and Biden has said that a railroad labor action could “devastate our economy”. On Wednesday Congress is expected to pass legislation that will force a settlement.
But union leaders are unhappy that Biden’s solution appears to be the imposition of a settlement reached in September that has already been rejected by many for failing to address members’ concerns about pay, sick days, staff shortages and time off.
“Joe Biden blew it,” said Hugh Sawyer, treasurer of Railroad Workers United, a group representing workers from a variety of rail unions and carriers. “He had the opportunity to prove his labor-friendly pedigree to millions of workers by simply asking Congress for legislation to end the threat of a national strike on terms more favorable to workers. Sadly, he could not bring himself to advocate for a lousy handful of sick days. The Democrats and Republicans are both pawns of big business and the corporations.”
Matt Parker, a locomotive engineer and chairman of the Nevada State Legislative Board of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said: “The overly simplistic approach that the administration has taken to this whole issue shows how out of touch they are with the plight of railroad workers.”
Railroad workers have threatened industrial action over their lack of paid sick time and the rail companies’ disciplinary attendance systems in which they are penalized for taking unpaid time off, an issue workers say has contributed to a lack of a work-life balance on the job.
Four of the 12 railroad unions representing a majority of the railroad workforce have rejected a tentative new union contract agreement which fails to address their concerns. If any of the 12 unions go on strike, each union has agreed to honor the picket line.
Under the Railway Labor Act, workers’ right to legally strike is limited in transportation services. The last railroad strike in the US occurred in 1992 for two days before Congress intervened.
The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said Congress would take up legislation on Wednesday to stop a nationwide strike that would honor the original labor union agreement brokered by the Biden administration in September to avoid industrial action ahead of the midterm elections.
She said the agreement “is not everything I would like to see, I would like to see paid sick leave – every [leading democratic] country in the world has it. I don’t like going against the ability of a union to strike but, weighing the equities, we must avoid a strike.”
Parker expressed dismay and disappointment over the Biden administration’s push to impose a tentative agreement most railroad workers voted against, and warned the impacts of doing so without addressing the quality-of-life issues will probably lead to higher attrition rates in a workforce that has already experienced significant declines in employment in recent years.
As railroad carriers have implemented cuts and more grueling scheduling systems, they have also reported record profits and have paid out $196bn in stock buybacks and dividends to shareholders since 2010.
BNSF and Union Pacific, the two largest railroad corporations in North America, both reported record profits in 2021. BNSF is owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate.
Senator Bernie Sanders hit out at Buffett last week. “Warren Buffett, the owner of BNSF Railway’s parent company, became $1.38bn richer yesterday,” Sanders tweeted, referring to a boost to Buffett’s net worth from a rise in Berkshire Hathaway’s stock price.
“In one day, Mr Buffett made twice as much money as it would cost to guarantee 15 paid sick days a year to every rail worker in America,” Sanders said. “The greed of the rail industry must end.”
Parker claimed this action to call for imposing a rejected contract undermines Biden’s relationship with labor, as he has repeatedly and proudly proclaimed to be the most pro-union president ever.
“What railroad workers are standing up for is a better quality of life, to get the respect that they deserve, and the benefits that they deserve and have earned. Sick time, reasonable time off to rest when the majority of the railroad workforce works on call 24/7 365 days a year,” Parker said.
“With the increased demands that the railroads have put on with their personnel cuts and with these draconian attendance policies, railroaders are not given sufficient time off to rest, to recoup, to recover from illness or to spend time with their families,” he added. “That’s what they’re looking for. The failure to address that could have a profound effect in the future on the ability for railroads to hire and maintain workers.”
Jeff Kurtz, a locomotive engineer in Iowa for more than 40 years, severely criticized the Biden administration’s tentative agreement. “It’s not just about paid time off, it’s about time off period,” said Kurtz, who has now retired. “Basically what the carriers, and now it looks like what Congress is going to say too, is you are pretty well tied to your job for the rest of your life.”
In the railroad agreement, workers were provided with one paid day off and the ability to schedule three doctor appointments annually without being penalized, but Kurtz noted the parameters and restrictions make it nearly impossible to use the time off and provide employers with even greater interference and control over their workers’ healthcare. Workers had sought 15 paid days off in the contract.
“The Presidential Emergency Board was just no help whatsoever,” added Kurtz. “I thought it’d be somewhat more labor-friendly than it was, but it could have been written by the carriers as far as I was concerned.”