National Rail Contract: Vote No and Prepare to Strike!

Informational Picket Burlington System Division – BMWED

By Nicholas Wurst (Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers—Transportation Division Local 1473, personal capacity)

The threat of a nationwide freight rail strike is back on the table. Railroad corporations and union representatives reached a tentative agreement on September 15th, less than 24 hours before the expiration of a “cooling down” period, part of the Railway Labor Act legal process meant to make it extremely difficult or illegal for union railroad workers to use their right to strike. On October 10th, the third largest union of railroad workers, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE), voted down the tentative contract agreement. 

Since the tentative agreement was reached, 6 smaller unions have voted in favor of the tentative agreement, with only the International Association of Machinists (IAM) District 19 voting no early on. District 19 leaders have since negotiated a new tentative agreement featuring very few improvements which has been narrowly approved by the members. The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen just voted down the tentative agreement as well, joining BMWE. The two biggest railroad unions, SMART Transportation Department (TD) and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), which represent train crews and half of all railroad workers, have not yet voted.

Workers at the seven biggest freight railroads nationwide (known as “Class 1” railroads) have not had a contract update since the last agreement, whose last wage increase was in 2019.  We have worked through pandemic, inflation, and skyrocketing costs of living with no wage increases or improvements to working conditions and quality of life. We work on call, 24/7, long shifts, with little time off or vacation and no sick time. Harsh attendance policies are universal, punishing workers for calling out even a couple of times. The total number of “Class 1” railroad workers have been cut approximately 40% in the last 10 years as the companies have slashed jobs in pursuit of increased profit.

After years of delays, rail workers finally began to get hints of contract negotiations beginning in earnest early this year. Railroad workers, like airline workers, are subject to special labor law known as the Railway Labor Act, which lays out a long and drawn out process of negotiations with mandated cooling down periods and government intervention. This takes away many union rights from rail workers. 

Back in January, the Democrat-led federal government directly intervened in union negotiations. A National Mediation Board (NMB) was brought in after the unions spent over two years playing by the rules while the corporations stalled. The unions failed to take any serious initiatives to increase the pressure on the companies. Unions cited the previous anti-union Republican government as the reason they delayed negotiations, implying that waiting for a Democratic government would get a better deal for railroad workers. The unions rejected the binding arbitration offered by the NMB in favor of starting a 30 day countdown to a possible strike, with the expectation that Biden would create a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB). Biden assembled the PEB to buy time, fearing the economic impact of a rail strike especially in the leadup to the midterm elections. 

The PEB recommendations, shocking to nobody wise to the pro-corporate nature of Biden and the Democrats, were welcomed by the companies. Negotiations continued after their release, with some rank-and-file workers organizing protests despite union leaders refusing to mobilize  widespread actions. As the 30-day cool down period began again, some unions began reaching tentative agreements with the companies which were largely based on the PEB recommendations. With the clock ticking down, Biden, Marty Walsh (Secretary of Labor), and other Democrats pushed hard for the remaining union leaders to reach weak tentative agreements. There is no doubt that Biden and the Democrats would order striking workers back to work and try to unilaterally force a new contract onto railroad workers through an act of Congress. 

Insulting Tentative Agreement

This tentative contract agreement is an insult to long-abused and exploited railroad workers. Our labor has made railroading one of the most profitable industries for the capitalist class. The agreement includes mediocre wage increases which would barely make a difference after accounting for inflation and cost of living increases. If the proposed contract is accepted, monthly healthcare premiums would go up to almost double the current costs within the next few years. 

The proposed contract includes no increases to existing vacation or personal time, or any sick time at all, which were a central demand. Instead, it includes one additional paid day off a year and the ability to take an unpaid day off for a doctor’s appointment three times a year (provided it is scheduled at least 30 days in advance and only on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday). There are no paid provisions for illness or injury. 

The tentative agreement also opens the door for more usage of “self-supporting crew pools” which attacks the few scheduling protections most over-the-road train crews operate under. For example, workers expecting to be called in the morning to a shift might instead be called in hours earlier than expected to cover a vacancy. This is dangerous and can result in workers going to work on very little or no sleep. 

What Rail Workers Need

  • Wages high enough so railroad workers do not have to rely on overtime and penalty claims to pay our bills and provide for our families.
  • We already pay too much for healthcare in a dangerous job that destroys our bodies! Monthly premiums and out-of-pocket costs should be frozen and benefits should be expanded!
  • Fight understaffing! Train crews need safe staffing levels on crew pools and extra boards to provide good service and time off for all! Defend the two-person train crew. All crafts need to be fully staffed to ensure safety and quality of life.
  • 8 hour days, 5 day weeks with 2 consecutive days off. We should be able to choose if we want to work more, not be forced!
  • We need a major increase in vacation and personal time. We shouldn’t have to beg management to approve time off!
  • Railroad workers face threats to our physical and mental health from exhaustion, exposure, irregular hours, our equipment, and physical labor. We need real sick time, paid and on demand like any other worker! When family members are sick we need to be able to be there. 
  • Abolish Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR)! End the policy of running railroads with the lowest possible levels of staffing, maintenance, and equipment. Reverse decades of privatization and contracting. Fight to reopen closed facilities and lines. 
  • Expand our unions to cover all railroad workers! 
  • Fight for company and government investment in maintaining rails, switches, and other infrastructure, as well as upgrades to equipment to improve safety, quality of life, and full staffing!

Vote “No” and Strike!

A strong “no” vote and preparations for a serious strike and possible defiance of the anti-union Railway Labor Act is needed if we want to reverse the long decline of staffing, pay, and quality of life for railroaders. The tight labor market has made it difficult for the railroads to find new workers willing to work the extremely long hours with little time off, and that gives us some more leverage to fight back. This opportunity won’t last, as railroaders who might be willing to fight retire or quit in frustration, unemployment rates get worse forcing workers to settle for less, and as the carriers continue to push for single person crews and other cost and job cuts. Railroad Workers United, a rank-and-file organization of railroaders from all parts of the industry, has published several statements detailing reasons why railroad workers should vote no

Railroad Workers Need Fighting Unions

It is increasingly clear to railroad union members that the union leaders are totally out of touch with the rank-and-file workers they are supposed to represent. This has been shown by delaying the negotiations with no concern for the immediacy of railroaders’ needs. The union leaders are  so far refusing to use effective tactics that they think may harm the prospects of corporate politicians. Instead, they’ve spent more effort on propaganda defending the weak tentative agreement than pushing for real contract improvements. 

Railroad unions are some of the oldest and most conservative unions in American labor, dividing the industry between a dozen different organizations and “crafts,” with arcane rules for internal democracy. They have a large, very well paid bureaucracy. As the number of union railroad workers has drastically declined, many local and even some national unions have become completely hollowed out and nonfunctional. As the contract negotiations continued, more and more unions broke ranks in favor of “me too” clauses that allowed them to approve the agreement, drop out of the united negotiations, and still be included in further improvements won by the other unions willing to hold out and continue fighting for a better contract. The likelihood of winning contract improvements declines with each union that abandons negotiations.  

It’s long past time for the leadership of the unions to be challenged by workers willing to fight for better lives and work conditions. The dozen unions we have now have presided over rapidly declining membership, severe job cuts, and worsening conditions, quality of life, and compensation without any real fightback. Compare the currently divided craft-based rail unions to the American Railway Union (ARU) founded in 1893, the last serious attempt to build one union organizing the whole of the rail industry. 

The ARU, on the other hand, quickly grew to be one of the largest unions in the country as railroad workers who were fed up with the craft unions joined its ranks. In its first year, the ARU defeated wage cuts at the Great Northern Railway with an all-crafts strike that lasted 18 days. The ARU presented such a threat to the bosses that companies turned to the government to break the back of the union, terrified of the ARU-organized boycott of the Pullman Company. ARU members refused to handle cars owned by Pullman in solidarity with the 1894 strike. 

Today, groups like Railroad Workers United and BMWE Rank and File United point the way forward in the fight for unity among railroad workers and rebuilding and reclaiming our unions. An immediate step could be taken by organizing regular joint meetings of the different unions where they have locals in the same area to discuss and build solidarity. Ultimately what railroaders need once again is one union uniting all the workers across the industry, with real internal democracy, committed to building union power and fighting for union members and the working class using mass protests with other unions, strikes, occupations, solidarity strikes, and other tactics. 

Anti-labor Politicians and Laws

The anti-union role of the Republican party has been clearly demonstrated, and Republican legislators have made it clear that they will side with the companies in any dispute. Now the role of the so-called “pro-labor” Biden administration and the Democratic Party has also been exposed for many railroad workers. The willingness of the railroad companies to agree to the Presidential Emergency Board recommendations indicates what a weak contract the PEB represents, and disproves the idea that the PEB was a real compromise between the unions demands and the railroad corporations. Politicians and union bureaucrats pressured railroaders to refrain from effective job actions—to put the struggle against terrible conditions on hold—in order to help keep a Democratic administration in power that is willing to sacrifice us to keep corporate profits high. That same administration has demonstrated its willingness to order us back to work and undemocratically impose a bad contract on us.  

Railroad workers need to help create a new political party for working people, a workers’ party , independent of the power of the big corporations to take our fight to the political arena. A workers’ party is vital to unite unions within and between industries, creating real unity and solidarity in the labor movement, and helping labor take up the political struggle against corporate power. 

The power of the government to decide rail contracts needs to be fought against. The Railroad Labor Act (RLA) was passed in the 1920s after decades of railroad workers being some of the most militant workers in the fight for better pay, hours, and safety. Fearful of the massive power of railroad workers, the RLA was created, giving the federal government a huge amount of power in deciding contracts for rail workers and denying our ability to take action. The RLA, which applies to airline workers as well, must be abolished in order for all workers to be able to exercise their union rights.

Government regulations under capitalism are most often used or twisted to help corporate interests unless there is mass pressure from the working class to win and defend regulations that protect us. We can help build that mass pressure by mobilizing in the workplaces and the streets and building a workers’ party to help fight in the political arena. 

The government could immediately address many of the issues that railroaders face. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and broader federal government can improve regulations on safe staffing levels, limits on hours we can work, and time off between shifts or after consecutive starts to improve our quality of life. The Democratic administration is not interested in using the power of the government to improve rail workers’ conditions. 

Railroad  jobs and the entire economy have been severely affected  by the major railroads and their pursuit of profit for Wall Street and the shareholders. Nonsensical strategies like Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) clog terminals and mainlines. Wall Street is running the railroads with no room for error, no backups, no accounting for crises like natural disasters or pandemics, and no concern for the wellbeing of workers and communities who rely on rail services for goods and transportation. The insanity of management policy is obvious to working railroaders. 

Despite moving less freight less quickly, and contributing to an overall meltdown of the supply chain with cost-cutting measures and deliberate understaffing, the railroads have continued to post massive profits. CSX freight, for example, just announced it made $1.1 billion in net income in the third quarter, up 18% percent from the same quarter last year. 

Rail monopolies are still growing as major carriers, despite mismanaging their own services, continue taking over smaller railroads. This year, CSX bought out PanAm, a smaller New England rail company, despite “cutting costs” to the point of creating miserable working conditions and terrible service. Rail corporations claim they don’t have the money to pay us but they always find the money to purchase other companies and stock buybacks. The federal government approved the merger despite the ongoing crisis in freight railroading, which has reached such a dangerous point that  federal regulators organized congressional hearings this past spring. Representatives of the railroad corporations, unions, and the industries that use rail service were hauled in to testify as regulators cited concerns that unreliable freight services may cause more problems in industries like agriculture, manufacturing, and energy, any of which could trigger a recession. 

We Need Public Control and Mass Expansion of Rail Services!

It’s long past time for an essential service such as the transportation of goods and people to be taken out of the hands of a tiny class of people who only care about profit. Railroads should be expanded and improved in response to society’s needs and the climate crisis. Freight and mass transit railroads should be publicly owned, with democratically elected representatives from railroad workers, the labor movement, and working people in general to make accountable decisions about how to run, expand, and improve rail service. Fighting for public ownership and democratic planning of our industry will give union railroaders a way to reverse the long decline of the industry, provide the quality rail service that working people and our communities need, and improve the quality of life for transportation workers.