The railroad workers of this country have been embroiled in a contract fight spanning the last three years, struggling to improve their material and working conditions, and they need our support.
Three Years of Struggle
The railroad workers’ last contract lapsed in 2019. Since then, the 12 unions and the major rail carriers have been negotiating, with very little progress made. The railroad workers have gone without a raise since 2019, even after working hard through the pandemic, but the biggest issue in their contracts is the lack of paid sick time. These workers are constantly on call, barely getting any time for their families or to take care of their own health. They are working in more dangerous conditions. Rail carriers are pushing a neoliberal profiteering strategy, including Precision-Scheduled Railroading (PSR). PSR involves running longer trains with fewer crewmembers, and cutting labor costs by laying off significant percentages of the workforce, 29% according to the Surface Transportation Board (1). Therefore, rail corporations are raking in record profits at untenable margins. The carriers are also insisting on one-man crews, a dangerous practice that risks the safety of the workers; railroad workers are fighting to keep at least two-men crews (2).
The Railway Labor Act (RLA) of 1926 governs rail labor relations in the US (3). The RLA outlines procedures that carriers and workers must follow during contract negotiations, and defines what constitutes “major” and “minor” disputes. By extension this defines which issues railroad workers can cite as a reason to strike. Practically, the RLA creates many delays in negotiations and strike deployment via lengthy “cooling off” periods. Moreover, it allows multiple opportunities for the government to step in on the side of capital and impose contracts on the workers. The underlying goal of the legislation is to avoid any railroad strikes.
After an impasse with negotiations in July, 2022, President Biden appointed a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB). Following RLA procedures, the PEB proposed a contract to the unions and carriers (4). This was mostly voted down. The unions requested 15 paid sick days a year, and the PEB rejected that in favor of one personal leave day. In September, 2022, after more negotiations and the end of more cooling off periods, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh stepped in at the final moment and proposed a Tentative Agreement (TA). This TA includes some pay raises, no increases in health insurance premiums, but only one sick day, unpaid. Since then, the rail unions have been giving their members time to review and vote on whether to ratify the TA.
High Stakes for Labor
As of November 21, 2022, all rail unions have cast their votes on the TA. Four unions out of the twelve, which make up about half of the actual workers, voted no on the TA and are resuming negotiations: BMWED (Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division), SMART-TD (Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation – Transportation Division), IBB (International Brotherhood of Boilermakers), and BRS (Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen). The four unions have agreed to coordinate their various “status quo” periods to create more unified bargaining power. The date they chose is December 9, 2022, which is the earliest that any of the rail workers could strike, or that the rail carriers could impose a lockout. Rail culture maintains (and the RLA allows) that if one union strikes, no other unions will cross picket lines – therefore causing a national rail strike of around 115,000 workers.
Rail moves a significant portion of the nation’s GDP, and there are estimates of about $2 billion a day in losses for the owning class in the event of a strike (5). Given their economic power, rail workers are in a position to get their demands met – which are centered around safety and quality of life – if they get adequate support from the rest of labor and the nation at large. However, Congress has the legal authority to forcefully inflict a contract on the railroad workers (without a vote from rank-and-file workers) in order to avoid a work stoppage. This labor dispute has high stakes for the railroad workers and the relationship between the working class and the owning class. It also has the ability to deeply affect and bolster the wave of labor mobilization that has been sweeping the nation in recent years.
Solidarity in Action
The railroad workers have asked for our support as organizers, fellow members of the working class, and community members. Their main ask is to show up and support them at the picket lines in the event of a strike. TCDSA can be a force that helps boost numbers by bringing out community members, neighbors, coworkers, and friends to picket lines. Try to coordinate with other DSA members to show up as a group, increasing visibility to the railroad workers to show them that they have an organization in their community which stands in solidarity with them.
There are several rail yards around Northeast Minneapolis. Look for updates from TCDSA Labor Branch on specific locations for potential picket lines. In the meantime, it is essential to spread the word about the struggle, so that the public becomes aware of how the railroad corporations are squeezing the workers, and can fight the misinformation that is circulating (i.e., “they already make so much money”, “they would devastate the economy and ruin Christmas”, etc.).
Another way to support the railroad workers is to write to national elected officials to urge them to take the side of labor in this fight. Let them know that the people of Minnesota are pro-labor, pro-union, pro-working class and we will not stand for our senators or representatives forcing an unfair contract onto our fellow comrades. Let them know we will be paying attention to how they respond to these events.
Finally, check out Railroad Workers United (RWU), an organization of rank-and-file cross-craft railroad workers who are building towards mass solidarity among the railroad unions and with labor at large. Become a solidarity member, sign up for their newsletter, or get some of their railroad merch.
by Brooke B.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Railway_Labor_Act, RAILWAY LABOR ACT [Chapter 347 of the 69th Congress, Approved May 20, 1926, 44 Stat. 577] [As Amended