United States: Biden, Congress deny rail workers right to strike, impose employer-friendly contract

RWU
Members of the Railway Workers Union. Photo: @RWU/Twitter

The United States House of Representatives passed legislation on November 30 aimed at blocking a national rail strike planned for December 9, after workers voted down a tentative agreement negotiated by President Joe Biden’s administration in September.

The workers are members of the Brotherhood of Trainmen (BLET), the Locomotive Engineers and the Order of Railway Conductors (ORC) and two smaller unions, representing about 55% of the 115,000-strong workforce.

The Senate voted to support the “no-strike” legislation on December 1 and Biden immediately signed the new law into effect.

Such direct government intervention into an industrial dispute is unusual and was organised by Biden and his Democratic Party allies. When it comes to the working class, rhetoric about “defence of democracy” is meaningless.

Biden, the Republicans and Democrats claim the national economy would collapse if rail workers went on strike.

Why now?

The strike threat was provoked by the rail bosses’ refusal to give in on the rail unions’ central goal: the provision of paid sick leave and more personal leave.

Most rail workers are on permanent “call” when off duty. They can be penalised for missing work for failing to answer a call-in, being sick, or because of a family emergency.

Unions demanded 15 paid sick days a year. The bosses offered zero.

Rail companies are absolutely swimming in profits — more than enough to satisfy the unions’ demands and still have tens of billions of dollars left over.

Instead of telling the bosses to seriously negotiate with the unions, Biden told the workers to sit down.

The tentative agreement, pushed by the White House, would raise wages but provide only a single paid sick day per year.

The rail bosses’ business group, the Association of American Railroads, praised Biden and the Congress for their actions.

Betrayal

The sense of betrayal by rail workers is especially acute because Biden has long proclaimed himself as friendly to unions, and many union officials regard him as the most labour-friendly president of their lifetimes.

The rank and file now see him differently.

Daniel Kindlon, a railway electrician in New York state and head of his local union, told the New York Times on November 30 he was impressed when Biden spoke at his union conference this year, but didn’t understand why Biden didn’t push Congress to agree to more. “A couple of days of sick time; that’s really all the guys were asking for,” he said.

Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, told the NYT in September: “It would not harm their operations to treat employees like humans and let them take care of medical issues.”

“It’s the primary outstanding issue, one we won’t budge on — the request that they stop firing people who get sick.”

After Biden’s decision to deny rail workers the right to strike, Railroad Workers United (RWU) General Secretary Jason Doering urged workers to speak up and push back. “Despite making record profits year after year, downsizing the workforce by furloughing 30% of the employees and becoming some of the most profitable corporations on Wall Street, the Class One carriers somehow cannot afford to provide sick time for their hardworking and dedicated employees.”

RWU co-chair and conductor Gabe Christenson said: “The ‘most labor-friendly’ President in history has proven that he and the Democratic Party are not the friends of labor they have touted themselves to be. These wolves in sheep’s clothing have for decades been in bed with corporate America and have allowed them to continue chipping away at the American middle class and organized labor.”

Railway Labor Act

Under the terms of the 1926 Railway Labor Act (RLA), Congress has the option to take a variety of actions, including keeping both parties at the bargaining table before imposing a tentative agreement.

RWU Treasurer Hugh Sawyer said: “Joe Biden blew it. He had the opportunity to prove his labor-friendly pedigree to millions of workers by simply asking Congress for legislation to end the threat of a national strike on terms more favorable to workers.

“Sadly, he could not bring himself to advocate for a lousy handful of sick days. The Democrats ad Republicans are both parties of big business and the corporations.”

RWU organiser and Locomotive Engineer, Ron Kaminkow told DemocracyNow! on November 30 that Biden had opted to side with the rail bosses, rather than pressure them into meeting the rail workers’ “very modest demands” and criticised Biden’s latest request to Congress to “legislate us basically back to work, before we’ve even had a chance to strike” after workers “voted this contract down”.

Kaminkow said the harsh attendance policies are driving experienced rail workers to resign. “We’re seeing workers leaving the industry in droves, in numbers never, ever believed possible. People with 15 and 20 years’ seniority are leaving the industry. And there’s a crisis out there. And I don’t believe the Biden administration quite understands the depth of this crisis.”

“Since I entered the industry more than a quarter-century ago, I have watched as the rail industry has made record profits.

“The operating ratio [the measure of railroad “efficiency” calculated by dividing operating expenses by operating revenue] when I hired in, I believe, was somewhere in the mid-80s. It dropped into the 70s, 60s. The rail industry is hell-bent on achieving a 50 operating ratio. And who knows where they might even want to go from there?

“The dividends that have been paid out to stockholders are enormous … [and] wealth has been accumulated by these rail carriers over the last quarter-century, while they have moved less freight than they did 16 years ago.”

The disillusion expressed by unionists goes beyond Biden and the Democrats. The main trade union federation, the AFL-CIO, has not said a word about Biden’s betrayal of rail workers. It has expressed support for more paid sick days but remains quiet about the Congressional intervention.

The AFL-CIO stands with the Democrats and Biden. Solidarity with the rail workers to victory is not in its vocabulary or actions.

The right to strike is the key issue. Without the threat to withdraw labour, bosses rarely make major concessions to workers’ demands.

Right to strike

The right to strike has always been limited for rail workers in the US. The RLA is a very restrictive anti-labour law. The rail carriers got Congress to adopt it in the context of the anti-communist, anti-immigrant “Red Scare” response to the Russian Revolution. Organised labour was at a very weak point.

The RLA was amended in 1934 and 1936 to include airline workers. The aim was clear: prevent national strikes by transport workers.

The RLA allows a long-drawn-out process, including mediation and arbitration, before workers are allowed to strike. But even at the end of the process, Congress and the president can intervene and impose an agreement even if the workforce seeks to strike. Wildcat strikes are prohibited.

The last time rail workers went on strike was in 1992 under Republican President George W Bush. Within days of the shutdown starting, Bush and Congress imposed mandatory arbitration and forced striking workers back to work.

Without mobilising broad solidarity with the rail unionists’ right to strike, this intervention will be a big setback — not only for rail workers, but all workers seeking better working conditions.