More than 150 railroad workers, family members and their supporters joined in the “Galesburg Rally for Rail Labor” here July 30, one of a series of protests being organized by rail workers across the Midwest as part of their fight to win a new contract. This western Illinois town is a major hub for BNSF Railway, with freight lines spreading out in all directions.
The action brought together track maintenance workers, conductors, engineers and workers from other rail crafts. Eleven different unions are currently in contract negotiations together with the seven national Class 1 freight carriers, which includes BNSF, the second largest in the country. Participants marched around Central Park, a large downtown traffic circle, and listened to speakers.
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.
US labor law is designed to prevent railroad strikes like the kind that shook America in the past. But the constant cuts to staffing levels and erosion of conditions for rail workers could produce a national rail walkoff by September.
After thirty months of stalled contract negotiations amid the pandemic — all while enduring stagnant wages, heavier workloads, unsafe conditions, and draconian attendance policies — 115,000 fed-up US freight railroad workers are mobilizing for a possible national strike.
Freight rail workers are on the verge of striking for better pay and working conditions, a move that would cap years of stalled negotiations. In a recent vote, 99.5 percent of the members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), a union leading a coalition of freight rail workers in negotiations, authorized a strike.
If it was simply a matter of management versus labor, a strike would likely already have started. But rail workers occupy a peculiar area of labor law, one governed by a century-old federal law that gives Congress and the president wide powers to avert strikes, even though this labor remains the most powerful threat workers have to get better wages and working conditions.
Supply chain problems could get much, much worse in September if 115,000 railroad workers go on strike. The workers have gone more than two years without a contract, dealing with one cut after another, including job cuts that have led to serious understaffing. The rail companies have been very profitable as they’ve put these and other cuts into place, but they’ve continued to squeeze workers—and they’re making moves that could harm a lot of people beyond their own workers. In fact, many observers say the rail companies have contributed to supply chain problems as they’ve tried to cut costs to the bone.
Rail workers across the country were set to walk off the job on July 18 before President Joe Biden intervened, the latest development in a contentious saga that has been brewing for years.
In an executive order signed on July 15, Biden established an emergency three-person board of arbitrators to work with the freight railways and their 115,000 workers to hammer out a contract that has been under negotiations since January 2020.
“The president’s goal is to make sure America’s freight rail system continues to run without disruption, delivering the items that our families, communities, farms, and businesses rely on,” the White House stated in a press release.
Samantha Brown, Communications Director for the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, joined the America’s Work Force Union Podcast and discussed how the Presidential Emergency Board, appointed by President Biden, seeks to reach a contractual agreement between the United Rail Unions and the railroads.
Biden recently announced the formation of the board under the process laid out by the Railway Labor Act after voluntary bargaining between the unions and the freight railroads stalled. Brown explained this was due to the railroads negotiating in bad faith. It is the final attempt to reach an agreement before a work stoppage or a lockout occurs, she added.
AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Greg Regan joins Yahoo Finance Live to weigh in on how the union contract negotiations with railroads are proceeding, the issues at stake including wages and benefits, and the potential for work stoppage.
President Joseph Biden last Friday stepped in with an executive order designed to keep freight rail workers from striking over the next 60 days.
Mr. Biden signed the action naming an emergency board of arbitrators that will help resolve disputes between the workers and their employers. The arbitrators have been tasked with coming up with recommendations for the parties to consider in an effort to find a middle ground that will avert a strike or further federal intervention.