Last month, for The Real News, I reported on the egregious working conditions that rail workers on Class I freight railroads are facing, including punitive and inhumane attendance policies, chronic understaffing (after rail companies collectively laid off 30% of their workforce since 2015), stagnant wages, and dire safety threats as trains have gotten longer and heavier while rail carriers have simultaneously sought to reduce crew sizes down to one person. This long-simmering crisis recently came to a head when a coalition of negotiators representing more than 115,000 rail workers were unable to come to an agreement with the rail carriers, who have left workers without a contract for nearly three years. Even the National Mediation Board was unable to broker an agreement, declaring negotiations at an impasse on June 14, which opened the door for the unions to strike or for the carriers to initiate lockouts after a 30-day “cooling off” period—unless, that is, the Biden administration intervened.
On July 15, President Biden did just that, appointing a Presidential Emergency Board to step in and break the stalemate in negotiations between the rail carriers and the unions. Recommendations from the PEB are expected to be forthcoming in the next two weeks. Both sides have the ability to reject those recommendations, which would start the clock again on another 30-day “cooling off” period, after which strikes and lockouts could begin. Because labor relations on the railroads are governed by the Railway Labor Act, not the National Labor Relations Act, these are among the many hurdles that have to be cleared before a national rail shutdown could take place. It was always unlikely that such a shutdown would occur (that’s kind of the whole point of the Railway Labor Act), but we are closer to one now than we’ve been in a generation—and rail workers can feel it.
Last week, ahead of the PEB hearings, the amalgamated rail unions publicly released the contract offers from both sides of the table, and the miles-wide gap between them makes it clear why the negotiations have stalled out. While, for instance, the unions have pushed for a compounded 31.2% increase in wages over the five-year term of the contract, the rail carriers have countered with a compounded 17% increase that doesn’t appear to account for the sharp rise in inflation over the last two years. The rail carriers—including Union Pacific, BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, Kansas City Southern, and others—have also pushed for increases in monthly health insurance costs for employees. If implemented, their proposals would mean sharp increases in deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums for rail workers, which would take a not-insignificant chunk out of any wage gains that the unions could secure for their membership.
“In this case, especially, the facts are on our side,” Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, told TRRN. “There could not be any more [of a] stark example of corporate greed versus hard working people who are just trying to make a living and actually support their families and that are vital to our economy.” Regan is hopeful that the PEB will return recommendations that will benefit the rail workers and give the unions the leverage they need to put pressure on the rail carriers to finally come to a deal. “That’s what this whole process is designed to do. It’s not designed to set up a strike. It’s not designed to set up a work stoppage. It’s designed to bring the parties together for a deal,” he said. “So far, the only side that has been unwilling to negotiate in good faith has been the railroad side.”
While workers wait for the PEB to bring forth their recommendations, they have begun to hold informational rallies across the country at key locations along the rail lines to keep up the pressure on the rail carriers to come to a fair deal. The first rally was held in Lincoln, Nebraska, earlier this month, where rail workers gathered to educate the community about the ongoing crisis. Other rallies are scheduled to be held in the coming weeks.
On July 30, in Galesburg, Illinois, more than 100 rail workers from across the industry came together to hold a rally in an effort to keep the spotlight on the ongoing contract fight—and the injurious working conditions that rail workers are forced to endure. Workers gathered in the city center, under a statue of noted socialist poet and working class champion Carl Sandburg, who was born in the city. Workers chanted slogans loudly, listened to speakers, and talked amongst themselves as they held signs calling for a fair contract.
Marlon Beal, a locomotive engineer with BLE-T 391, highlighted the importance of these rallies in continuing to educate the public and encourage solidarity. “I think these rallies are important for all of labor, particularly union labor,” he said. “[It] gives us an opportunity to educate the public [on] some of the contractual issues we’re going through, particularly with regards to safety.” Alongside addressing the safety concerns about the railroad, Beal was also hopeful that the coming contract would help temper the financial stresses of rising inflation in this country. “Inflation is at 9% right now and money’s not going as far,” he said.
“I think it’s important for people to understand that railroaders want the company to do well. We want the country to do well with regards to our supply chain, [and] we want it to get better,” Beal said. “We’re not trying to break the country down by any means with regards to economics. This is our opportunity to right some wrongs and that’s all we’re trying to do.”
Regan also believes that these rallies are helping educate the public on the ongoing crisis with the railroads. “I think that one thing that the last two years have shown us, if anything, it’s that people are waking up to how important the supply chain is to their everyday lives,” Regan said. “I think these types of rallies, when you see cars driving around the circle and honking their horns and supporting the rail workers—I think they understand that these people are essential workers that are vital to our economy.”
Other rail workers are adamant about fighting for a fair contract that will address the long-running issues that led to the crisis they are currently facing. “The Wall Street railroading that’s going on nowadays has to stop,” said Jordan Boone, SMART-TD legislative rep for Local 445 and co-organizer of the Galesburg rally. “We gotta get back to paying the workers that work on the railroads a fair wage, [have] attendance policies that are livable, and keeping the crew safe with manpower,” Boone said. “When they cut down these crews so much, it’s not safe to be out there by yourself or even with two people sometimes.”
Nick Allen, BMWED Local 798 vice president and co-organizer of the Galesburg rally, says he has high hopes that the PEB will return a favorable recommendation. “All the rail unions have come down in their original proposal to make it a fair proposal for both [parties],” Allen said. “The railroads failed to do the same thing. We are trying to bargain in good faith, and we even took a good faith offer to the PEB. I’m hoping they’ll see that and side with us in that.”
Should it come to national rail strike, the rail workers are prepared to do what is necessary to win a fair contract, though most workers would much rather prefer that the rail carriers come to a deal with the unions to avoid further disruptions. “I don’t think that we’ve ever had a situation where the workers are more unified in their fight for a good contract,” Regan said. “But I think it’s important to remind people that a strike is a last resort for a reason. It’s not an easy thing to do. [It’s] extremely painful for rank-and-file workers to put their livelihoods on hold and to sacrifice so much for this cause… But I am certainly hopeful that we don’t have to do that.”
“We don’t want to strike. We don’t want to disrupt the economy any more than it is [and] we don’t want to disrupt the supply chain,” Allen said. “We’re also not going to take anything less than what we deserve, and what our families deserve.”