The rank-and-file railroad workers’ labor dispute with first the railroads–and now their own unions, Congress and the Biden administration–is commonly understood as a fight to gain paid sick days, but workers say the real issue is chronic understaffing in pursuit of shareholder profits that put them at higher risk for injury and accidents.

Now that President Joe Biden has signed a resolution from Congress imposing a tentative contract agreement on rail workers who’ve rejected it, do they have any way to negotiate for better working conditions–or do they have to accept the contract that their unions’ management negotiated with the railroads in September, facilitated by the Biden administration?

There is no central railroad union, so over 100,000 rail workers are represented by 12 different craft unions. Eight unions voted to accept the tentative contract agreement, which would provide a 24% wage increase over five years, but the other four unions, which represent a majority of rail workers, voted it down. After a cooling-off period expired on Dec. 9, they would have legally been able to strike.

But Congress passed a resolution on Dec. 2 binding the workers to the tentative contract agreement, in an attempt to avert the first national rail strike in decades. Congress was able to do that under a proviso in the 1926 Railway Labor Act, which governs labor disputes for railroad and airline workers, instead of the more labor-friendly National Labor Relations Act, enacted in 1935. 

Even though trucks move far more freight than railroads these days, a rail strike would have a big impact on both Atlanta and the state of Georgia. Atlanta is a major regional transit and logistics hub, due to the airport and the port of Savannah (the nation’s fourth-largest container cargo port), while Georgia has the Southeast’s most extensive freight rail system with 5,000 miles of track.

Most of the state’s freight traffic is carried by CSX Transportation, based in Jacksonville, Fla., and Norfolk Southern, which employs 3,000 people at its corporate headquarters in Atlanta. Along with Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway Company, they are the four biggest railroads in the country.

To explain why he asked Congress to intervene in the railroad labor dispute, President Joe Biden said a rail strike would seriously damage the national economy, especially during the Christmas shipping season. However, the dispute is more complex than it may seem layperson.

What are the issues for the rail workers?

The media has reported it’s that the major sticking point in the railway labor dispute was paid sick days. Right now, rail workers don’t have any, and they can be penalized with fines or docked pay if they miss a shift. That is a huge problem since rail workers like conductors are essentially always on call; they’re generally expected to show up for work within two hours of receiving notification. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of sick days has become even more of an issue, since rail workers were deemed essential front-line workers who had to show up for shifts.

The rail workers wanted seven annual paid sick days, which would cost the railroads an estimated $321 million annually–less than 2% of their annual profit. But the railroads balked at this demand, despite posting record profits of $21.2 billion in the first three quarters of 2022 alone. It’s simple to say that the lack of sick days is why the four largest rail unions voted down the tentative contract agreement, but that’s not fully accurate. The sick day issue is the symptom of what workers, industry analysts and federal agencies like the Surface Transportation Board have been warning for years is a broken system, plagued by chronic understaffing, unreliable service and lengthy delays, as loaded trains sit for days for lack of crews.

Rail workers say that the railroads have systematically been eliminating staff and bypassing safety considerations to drive up profits. The big Class One railroads, including CSX and Norfolk Southern, cut 45,000 workers or 29% of jobs over the last six years, which increases the risk of errors and accidents from stressed and overworked workers. 

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated that dynamic, the rail workers say, echoing workers in many other industries. Al ilmu has reported on workers at Starbucks, Amazon and Delta Air Lines–also deemed frontline workers after COVID-19 hit–who say they were motivated to start union campaigns because their employers disregarded their safety and well-being during the pandemic as they posted record profits. In addition to paid sick days, the rail workers who rejected the tentative contract agreement were asking for regular schedules and guarantees that trains would be run by at least two workers.

What happens next?

It may seem that Congress quelled the railroad labor dispute, but some rank-and-file rail workers say otherwise.

The Railroad Workers Rank-and-File Committee on Dec. 1 issued a defiant resolution of its own that called Congress’ move to impose a contract “illegitimate” and asserted their right to take collective action against the tentative contract agreement.

“Congress, one of the most hated institutions in America, has no right to override the democratic rights of workers. If the apparatus of the unions sign these agreements, they do so in violation of the express will of the rank-and-file. Therefore, railroad workers reserve the right to organize and prepare collective action,” the resolution says.

“It is an attack on the democratic and Constitutional rights, including the right to strike and the right to participate in a meaningful contract vote, not only of railroaders but of the entire working class. If it succeeds, it will set a precedent that will be used against other sections of workers in the future,” it further warns.

Rank-and-file worker representatives of auto plants, West Coast docks, and graduate students joined the resolution, pledging “to use all means available to mobilize our coworkers to defend railroaders.”

One of these means could be a wildcat strike, which is undertaken by workers without union authorization and at this point would be illegal. The railroads could fire any participants and fine union leaders. It is a drastic measure rarely seen in the United States, but there are historical precedents.

In 1970, U.S. postal workers staged an illegal eight-day wildcat strike over low pay and a ban on collective bargaining for federal workers–even though as federal workers they were also prohibited from striking. Letter carriers in New York City started the strike, and within a few days, it spread to 200,000 postal workers nationally. Like the rail workers, the postal workers didn’t have a central union and instead were members of eight separate craft unions.

President Richard Nixon called in the military to deliver the mail and break up the strike while courts fined union leaders, but to no avail. The strike brought mail delivery to a halt and severely crippled the stock market.

The Post Office Department responded by bargaining more seriously with the postal unions, according to a short history from the AFL-CIO. Within a day, they reached a preliminary agreement and the postal workers went back on the job. A month later, they hammered out a final agreement with a 6% wage increase. Nixon signed the Postal Reorganization Act soon after, which gave postal workers an additional 8% raise and the right to collectively bargain for wages, benefits and working conditions–but still not to strike.

If rail workers were to take the same action, the disruption in freight shipment would place severe pressure on the American economy. Would it be sufficient to force the railroads, union management and the federal government to bend to workers’ demands?


Read the full resolution from the Railroad Workers Rank-and-File Committee.

Here’s more information from the Socialist Equality Party on building a rank-and-file committee in the workplace.

Read a letter from over 500 labor historians to President Joe Biden and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh that calls their “decision to ask Congress to impose an unfair and unpopular settlement in the current railway labor negotiations … a negation of the democratic will of tens of thousands of workers.”

Find out why the Railway Labor Act allows Congress to quell a strike.

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