Photo: Union Pacific train. Credit: Acorns Resort (Wikimedia Commons)
Unionized railway workers across the United States have been working for over three years without a new contract or wage increase, all while freight carriers have made record profits and cut railway staff. Three days before a potential strike by 115,000 freight railway workers, on July 15 President Biden intervened against the workers with the creation of a Presidential Emergency Board. Among other actions, the creation of the board prohibits any work stoppage or strike for 60 days while the board investigates the “labor dispute” between the workers and freight companies.
Of course, workers don’t need a PEB to recommend to them what the terms of their working conditions should be. They know these facts for themselves. In recent decades, rail companies have been implementing “precision scheduled railroading” under the guise of improving shipping costs and system efficiency. Functionally, this means running faster and longer trains which are more difficult to operate, reducing maintenance and cutting backup crews. On top of this, rail companies are insisting that locomotives be run with one-person crews instead of two, a proposal which will undoubtedly increase crew fatigue and reduce worker safety.
Railway work hours can be long and irregular and the working conditions are incredibly dangerous. Railyards and trains are environments with constant dangers of electrocution, burns, and crush injuries; railroad employees are twice as likely to die on the job compared to other industries and even nonfatal injuries can be severe and chronic.
Since January 2020, 12 rail unions have been negotiating a new contract with the seven largest railway companies in the United States. The 12 unions representing 115,000 workers in total are bargaining as two coalitions, collectively referred to as the United Rail Unions. The railway companies are likewise bargaining as a group, represented by the National Carriers’ Conference Committee. The United Rail Unions’ demands include an expansion of autism and hearing medical benefits, a national sick leave policy, and a five-year pay increase of 31.2% after compounding.
Railways are at the core of the U.S. economy. One third of U.S. exports are carried by rail, and rail accounts for 28% of domestic freight movement. There is no economic sector that is not tied in some way to railroads. Without railroad workers making rail transport possible, the entire country would grind to a halt virtually overnight. Yet, despite railway workers keeping the nation’s supply chains running during the pandemic even in the face of staffing shortages and facility closures, the rail companies have refused to concede the desired pay increases and have even proposed increasing healthcare costs.
With no other choice given the intransigence of the rail companies, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, one of the unions comprising the United Rail Unions, held a near-unanimous strike authorization vote on July 12. BLET represents 24,700 workers with members voting 99.5% in favor of authorizing a strike. In total, 115,000 rail workers across the country could have walked out on July 18.
At the last minute, President Biden announced the creation of a Presidential Emergency Board to investigate and report on the dispute, a clear maneuver to delay any possible strike by 60 days. Unlike other industries, collective bargaining in the railway and airline sectors is governed by special procedures from the 1926 Railway Labor Act. Due to the centrality of railways in the economy, rail labor negotiations are constrained by an anti-worker process whose intent is to resolve a contract fight without the threat of a strike or lockout. The struggle against the rail bosses and these unjust laws continues.