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Solidarity with Railroad Workers

Railroad Workers United Supports Public Ownership of the Rails

By Railroad Workers United - Railroad Workers United, October 5, 2022

More than a decade ago at the 2012 Convention of Railroad Workers United, the question of railroad ownership first came before those members assembled. Since that time the organization has discussed and debated whether or not to take a position on the question. In face of the degeneration of the rail system in the last decade, the RWU Steering Committee voted unanimously at the October monthly meeting to adopt such a position (see Resolution below).

While the rail industry has been incapable of expansion in the last generation, while it has become more and more fixated on the operating ratio to the detriment of all other metrics of success, Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) has escalated this irresponsible trajectory to the detriment of shippers, passengers, commuters, trackside communities, and workers. On-time performance is in the toilet, shipper complaints are at all-time highs. Passenger trains are chronically late, commuter services are threatened, and the rail industry is hostile to practically any passenger train expansion. The workforce has been decimated, as jobs have been eliminated, consolidated, and contracted out, ushering in a new previously unheard-of era where workers can neither be recruited nor retained. Locomotive, rail car, and infrastructure maintenance has been cut back. Health and safety has been put at risk. Morale is at an all-time low. The ongoing debacle in national contract bargaining sees the carriers – after decades of record profits and record low Operating Ratios – refusing to make even the slightest concessions to the workers who – contrary to what the Class Ones may state – have made them their riches.

Since the North American private rail industry has shown itself incapable of doing the job, it is time for this invaluable transportation infrastructure – like the other transport modes – to be brought under public ownership. During WWI, the railroads in the U.S. were in fact temporarily placed under public ownership and control. All rail workers of all crafts and unions supported (unsuccessfully) keeping them in public hands once the war ended, and voted overwhelmingly to keep them in public hands. Perhaps it is time once again to put an end to the profiteering, pillaging, and irresponsibility of the Class One carriers. Railroad workers are in a historic position to take the lead and push for a new fresh beginning for a vibrant and expanding, innovative and creative national rail industry to properly handle the nation’s freight and passengers.

Please, read the full text of the Resolution below, along with the supporting information. And if you wish to take part in the movement to bring the railroads under public control, please contact RWU at info@railroadworkersunited.org

Railroad Strike Threatens Power in Coal-Dependent States

By Jake Bittle - Grist, September 14, 2022

Tens of thousands of U.S. railroad workers in several different unions are poised to strike at the end of this week after a prolonged labor dispute. The workers have been unable to reach an agreement with a group of six rail carriers despite months of back-and-forth on issues like stagnant pay, long shift lengths, and an inability to take time off.

Biden administration officials have been racing to mediate between the parties ahead of a Friday deadline, hoping to avoid a railroad strike and shutdown that the Department of Transportation has estimated would cost the economy about $2 billion a day. Biden himself convened a Presidential Emergency Board two months ago to help supervise the talks, but the board has been unable to help the two sides come to a final resolution. Marty Walsh, the administration’s labor secretary, postponed a planned visit to Ireland this week to help with the negotiations.

The looming railroad workers’ strike threatens to deliver a blow to the economy by disrupting critical supply chains for commodities like lumber and wheat. No sector stands to lose as much as the coal industry, which is almost entirely dependent on railways to move its product around. A work stoppage could reduce coal stockpiles that have already been thinned by poor rail service and the high levels of consumption caused by recent volatility in global energy markets. This could lead to electricity shortages and sky-high prices in coal-dependent parts of the country.

Coal is by far the most rail-dependent fossil fuel. The lion’s share of crude oil and natural gas moves around the country on pipelines, but you can’t put coal in a pipeline, so it has to move on trains, trucks, and barges. Because the fuel is so heavy and takes up so much space, rail is the only economical way to transport it from mines to power plants: The average coal train consists of 140 cars that each hold about as much coal as could fit on ten trucks. Even if coal could be shifted onto trucks, the trucking industry itself has also been experiencing labor shortages, and there’s not much excess truck capacity to absorb rail freight.

The Federal Government Is Trying to Stop Railroad Workers From Striking

By Joe Burns - Jacobin, September 9, 2022

Railroad workers bargaining for better pay and working conditions are at an impasse with their employers, causing the federal government to intervene to ward off a disruptive strike. But railworkers should be allowed to strike if and when they want to.

For months, 140,000 union railroad workers have been stuck at an impasse with their employers, who are united under the banner of the Association of American Railroads. The terms of the dispute should be familiar to most workers: attendance policy, staffing, and wage increases. Despite record profits, rail employers have cut staffing, placing enormous burdens on workers that aren’t reflected in their pay.

By all accounts, railworkers are in a militant mood. An attendance policy prompted rail unions to attempt to strike earlier this year. In July, 99 percent of union members who cast ballots voted to authorize another strike, prompting President Joe Biden to intervene in August.

In order to avert a strike, Biden appointed a presidential emergency board (PEB) to reach a compromise and settle the dispute. The PEB put some money into wages but predictably did little on the workers’ core workplace concerns. The rail unions are unenthusiastic about the PEB ruling, and the largest groups have not been willing to put the recommendations out for membership ratification. While bargaining continues, the unions will be eligible to strike on September 16, which is thirty days following the PEB recommendation.

That eligibility requirement is a term of the Railway Labor Act (RLA), passed in 1926, which regulates bargaining in the rail and airline industries. Even though the RLA protects the right to strike in words, politicians in both parties have used the legislation to strip railroad workers of that right in practice, often ramming settlements down the throats of striking workers.

Over the years, Congress has intervened several times to delay strikes and sometimes even impose terms on railroad workers. President Harry Truman threatened to have the Army run the railroads in 1950 during the Korean War. In the 1960s, President Johnson imposed a longer no-strike period on rail workers. President Barack Obama delayed a threatened strike in 2011.

Just hours into the last nationwide major rail strike in 1991, Congress passed legislation imposing the very contract workers rejected. The legislation required further bargaining but held that if no agreement was reached the terms of the PEB would be implemented, even though the unions had already rejected those terms.

Republicans and nearly all Democrats lined up to take away railworkers’ right to strike in 1991 — the final vote was 400 to 5. This controversy created widespread disaffection with the Democratic Party, even spurring the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes to endorse Labor Party Advocates, which was the last serious attempt to create a labor party in the US.

Rail Workers Reject Contract Recommendations, Say They're Ready to Strike

By Joe DeManuelle-Hall - Labor Notes, September 1, 2022

Railroad unions continue their slow creep along the path to a settlement—or strike—in contract negotiations covering 115,000 workers. On August 16, the Presidential Emergency Board convened by President Biden issued its recommendations for a settlement. Many rail workers say they fall short and are prepared to strike to win more.

The PEB recommended 22 percent raises over the course of the five-year contract (dating back to 2020), which would be the highest wage increases rail unions have seen in decades. But they are offset by increases in health care costs—and come in the midst of high inflation.

The PEB also refused to touch almost any of the unions’ demands on work rules and conditions, either denying them outright or suggesting that the unions return to the slow negotiation and arbitration process they have already languished in since November 2019. Unions have been demanding a sick leave policy—rail workers have no sick days—and the PEB refused them. The PEB also refused to take a position on the strict attendance policies have infuriated many rail workers.

“By not addressing these issues and this generalized discontent among the workforce, the PEB has acted irresponsibly, their recommendations doing little to nothing to stem the tide of discontent nor address the ongoing mass exodus of workers from the industry,” said Jason Doering, general secretary of the cross-union solidarity caucus Railroad Workers United.

RWU Official Statement on PEB #250

By staff - Railroad Workers United, August 30, 2022

On August 16th, Presidential Emergency Board #250 released its official Report and Recommendation for a negotiated settlement to the ongoing dispute between the United Rail Unions and the National Carriers Conference Committee. The next day, the rail carriers wasted no time in proclaiming it a “fair and equitable” basis for an Agreement with the various unions. Within a few days, the rail unions responded by announcing their discontent yet began the arduous process of packaging a TA that the members would vote for, extolling the “positive side” of the PEB #250 to the membership.

Meanwhile, as the news filtered out and rank & file workers began to process the contents of the PEB Report, emotions ran the gamut from betrayal and sadness to letdown, frustration, anger, and resentment. One thing that unites all rail workers is the feeling of deflation after hopes had been flying high for a favorable PEB that might right some of the wrongs that rail workers have endured for decades.

What most railroaders are so upset about regarding the PEB is not so much what the PEB is recommending in terms of wage increases (although most workers appear not too jubilant about that), but rather, what the PEB simply chose to ignore. This year was supposed to be our time when rank & file rail workers could hold their heads high, value their jobs, be proud once again to be part of the rail industry, look forward to the coming years, and ultimately, to their retirement from the industry. Unfortunately, the PEB Report has cast a long shadow upon those hopes and expectations.

The US Could Be on the Verge of a Nationwide Railroad Strike

An interview with Ross Grooters - Jacobin, August 18, 2022

With railroad companies refusing to offer employees a favorable contract, 115,000 railworkers could soon launch a nationwide strike. We spoke with a train engineer about the industry’s brutal working conditions — and why a strike could spread like wildfire.

With railroad companies refusing to offer employees a favorable contract, 115,000 railworkers could soon launch a nationwide strike. We spoke with a train engineer about the industry’s brutal working conditions — and why a strike could spread like wildfire.

Rail unions in the United States representing 115,000 workers have been locked in negotiations with rail carriers for over two years. This week, a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), convened by the Biden administration to intervene in the dispute, issued its recommendations for a settlement. The railroads have stated their support for the deal, so the outcome is now in the hands of the twelve unions that represent freight railworkers — as well as Congress, which could intervene to force a deal.

But many railworkers are opposed to the PEB recommendations, which they view as lopsided in favor of railroad companies. They point to their deteriorating working conditions — including inhumane schedules and “lean production” policies that pile on work and threaten their safety and that of the public — and ask why they should accept givebacks when companies don’t even respect their labor. Indeed, in the PEB recommendations, the board reports that “the Carriers maintain that capital investment and risk are the reasons for their profits, not any contributions by labor.”

Some workers are now talking about a national strike — an action that that hasn’t occurred since 1991 and that could have massive economic and political effects during an election year and an uptick in labor activity.

In a conversation with Joe DeManuelle-Hall of Labor Notes, Iowa-based freight engineer Ross Grooters discussed how working conditions on the railroad have gotten worse, why he opposes the deal on the table, and what a national rail strike could look like in the United States.

Rail Workers May Strike Next Month

By Paul KD - Tempest, August 12, 2022

Paul KD: President Biden just appointed a Presidential Emergency Board to help resolve the current negotiations around a national rail contract. What is the PEB, and what is its role in the negotiations?

Ross Grooters: A PEB is a U.S. president-appointed group of three mediators. These three people typically have experience in labor case law and mediation. They will look at the merits of the United Rail Unions’ Coordinated Bargaining Coalition proposal and the National Carriers’ Conference Committee proposal, and from there they have 30 days to make a non-binding contract recommendation based on their findings. Their recommendation should occur in the middle of August (the 18th, I believe).

PKD: What can rail workers do to put pressure on the PEB? What are the unions and the companies doing to lobby the PEB, and the Biden Administration more broadly?

RG: Both the unions and the companies are waging narrative battles in the press. It’s a tale as old as labor and capital. While it’s important, at least as far as rank and file railroad workers are concerned, I believe the PEB is the wrong point of pressure. What’s done is done and we can’t necessarily impact the PEB recommendation directly. Besides both the unions or the carriers (railroad companies) can reject the PEB recommendation. I believe this is a likely outcome. Once this occurs there is a 30 day cooling-off period before a work stoppage—lockout or strike—could occur. The timeline for this is mid to late September. Because of this I believe our best course of action is to continue building support for a strike. Organize our locals and community support, and hold rallies. Under the Railway Labor Act, an act of Congress can force us back to work. Our congressional members would then legislate an agreement—that’s where we can lobby. Until that happens, we have the ability to threaten a work stoppage. We need to leverage that power.

A Railroad Worker Strike Could Shake the Economy’s Foundations

By Paul Prescod - Jacobin, August 2, 2022

Once a coveted job, conditions for railroad workers have badly deteriorated. But railroad workers are central to our economy — so central that a current impasse between railroad companies and associated unions has prompted Joe Biden to intervene.

Six months ago, the spouses of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Corporation (BNSF) employees detailed the toll the job was taking on their families. A letter containing twenty-five of their stories portrays a climate where workers find it impossible to maintain a personal life.

Nichole Bischoff, who has taken the lead in organizing railroad worker spouses, said to a local news outlet, “So many parents wanna be at every trick-or-treating event, every school function, baseball game and they just can’t, and our kids learn to live with it.”

“My husband can’t even attend any of his appointments,” one anonymous spouse complained. “He has already gotten dropped from a couple [health care] providers for poor compliance.”

Now conditions for railroad workers are poised to take center stage nationally. On Friday, July 15, President Joe Biden intervened in a labor dispute that could have a dramatic impact on the nation’s economy. Contract negotiations between the major freight railroad companies and their associated unions, representing 115,000 railway workers, have reached an impasse. Utilizing the procedures of the Railway Labor Act, the president stepped in to form a presidential emergency board that will hold hearings and issue recommendations during a thirty-day “cooling-off” period.

But there are no guarantees that this mediation will produce a settlement, as railworkers have been pushed to the brink by decades of brutal corporate cost-cutting measures.

What If Rail Workers Struck? A Talk with RWU

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