Dem 51
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Workers Get Railroaded

The Senate has made it official. After the House passed a bill imposing a new labor contract on railroad workers, the Senate followed suit, approving the legislation 80-15. Four senators were absent, while Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) voted "present," making an important statement that... we completely fail to grasp.

The single-biggest issue in the new contract, from the workers' perspective, was the lack of paid sick days. There was an attempt to add an amendment granting the sick leave, but it only got 52 votes, which is short of the 60 needed to invoke cloture. So, it failed. All of the Democrats present, except for Joe Manchin (D-WV), voted for the sick leave, along with six Republicans: Mike Braun (IN), Ted Cruz (TX), Lindsey Graham (SC), Josh Hawley (MO), John Kennedy (LA) and Marco Rubio (FL). We have absolutely no explanation for that list, and even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) expressed surprise that Cruz is, apparently, a closet socialist.

As readers can imagine, we are not especially familiar with the issues involved in this labor action. And we've looked, and the various media aren't giving a lot of coverage of labor's side of the issue. Fortunately, reader J.G. in Chicago is an 18-year veteran of the railroad industry and is a union official to boot, and has, at our request, provided an overview. Note that this was written at the end of a long day of railroad work, which is quite apropos:

On Monday, Joe Biden asked Congress to impose the terms of a contract rejected by the membership of four of the unions included in a labor coalition of the 12 unions that represent the majority of American rail workers. I think most railroad workers were shocked to hear that position from a president who, throughout his entire career, has striven to present himself as an ally of organized labor and specifically of rail laborers. Throughout his Senate career, Biden was known as "Amtrak Joe" not just because he commuted to Washington daily from Delaware, but because of his advocacy on behalf of rail workers. In fact, in 1992, he was one of only six votes in the Senate supporting rail labor, and against the legislation which ended the last major rail labor work stoppage. President Biden has cited the potentially devastating economic implications a prolonged strike could have on the economy. Many dependent industries would be immediately affected, and within a week drinking water purification and the production of electricity would also be impacted. However, Biden's call for the tentative agreement to be imposed hamstrings the collective bargaining efforts of his (purported) union allies and rewards the bad faith tactics of railroad management.

As has been widely reported, the central issues to the impasse are not compensation, but work rules concerning time off and, most specifically, sick days. At present, rail workers have no paid sick days. Municipal and state laws concerning paid sick leave have no bearing on rail workers; because railroad work is classified as "interstate commerce" it is mostly only regulated at the Federal level. While some workers do have paid "personal" days that can be used, these typically are required to requested weeks in advance and are only granted at the railroads' discretion. These days are often limited by service time or assignment-specific rules, and it has not been uncommon in recent years for class-I railroads to issue blanket rejections to all personal day requests and pay out the value of the days at year's end.

Many people outside of the industry do not understand the time demands placed on rail workers. In the transportation departments of railroads (locomotive engineers and conductors who crew and operate trains), many workers are required to be on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. A typical "trip," when a worker is called for duty, usually consists of a 12-hour work period ending in a location 100-300 miles from their home base. They then observe a 10-24 hour rest period at a hotel or dormitory before working on another train for 12 hours in transit to their "home" terminal. Upon completion of this 36-48 round trip, they can be required to begin their next tour of duty in 10 hours time. While some federal regulations are in place regarding rest, they are measures which are in place to provide for safe operations and do not address quality of life. For many, 72 hours on duty, with 48 hours in a hotel, and 48 hours at home, is a typical week. SMART-TD is one of the unions representing transportation workers that rejected the tentative agreement. Many workers in the maintenance of way departments work on location for days on end hundreds of miles from home, and they also work shifts that can be continued indefinitely. 20-hour shifts can be required unexpectedly due to weather events or mainline service interruptions. BMWED, which voted to reject the tentative agreement, represents workers in this department.

These work conditions are not new to railroads. What is new in the last 5 years is the implementation of draconian attendance/disciplinary programs and "Precision Scheduled Railroading" (PSR), a management strategy which seeks to boost profits through maximizing the use of assets while minimizing expenses. PSR has resulted in significantly fewer trains, while the ones that do run are longer and heavier. This makes the jobs workers do more taxing, dangerous and difficult. PSR has reduced maintenance on locomotives, cars, and rail infrastructure to bare minimums; these reductions have led to an increase in injuries and equipment failures, which create delays for customers, adjacent communities and the network itself. Railroads see their employees both as assets to be maximized and expenses to be limited. To that end, the PSR era (beginning in 2018) has seen a 30% reduction in the size of the work force, while year-in and year-out, the industry has moved the same amount of freight and posted record profits each year. To maximize the amount of time each remaining employee spends on the job, punitive points systems for attendance have been unilaterally implemented. BNSF Railway's "HiViz" policy has been especially noteworthy, prompting hundreds of career employees to resign. The quality of service to customers has plummeted in the PSR era. The decline in service has resulted in investigations and hearings led by the Surface Transportation Board and by congressional committees.

The last contract expired on January 1, 2020. The railroads' approach to negotiations has been unyielding and antagonistic. Railroads have openly expressed their desire to eventually eliminate nearly all collectively bargained positions through automation and deregulation. Railroads stalled negotiations for months on end demanding transportation unions agree to eliminate conductor positions on through-freight trains; this would seriously degrade safety standards and eliminate thousands of jobs in the craft. Not only was this demand a non-starter for unions, it also anticipated a state of deregulation which does not currently exist. At present, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) requires two crew members to be on nearly all through-freight movement. The FRA's formal regulation of this was not considered a necessity until recently (two-person-minimum crews were seen as essential by all sides for decades). The two-person-crew regulation may become a permanent regulation as soon as year's end.

This summer, after more than 30 months of impasse, and in accordance with the 1926 Rail Labor Act, President Biden appointed a "Presidential Emergency Board" (PEB) to hear arguments from both sides and issue recommendations. The PEB punted on most issues brought before them, recommending that things such as scheduling and work rules be removed from the national agreement for localized bargaining and/or arbitration to resolve the difference. Notably, the PEB made proposals for wages that split the railroads' and the unions' positions down the middle. However, in regards to paid sick days, the PEB recommend the railroads' position of zero paid sick days over the unions' request for 15. The PEB's recommendations were immediately praised by the railroads and condemned by the unions for the total lack of paid sick days provided. A strike date was set for September 16. In the days leading up to September 16, deadline marathon negotiations sessions were held between the parties, mediated by Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. On Sept. 15, the sides agreed to a tentative pact with almost no changes to the PEB recommendations, and 0 paid sick days. The only concessions from railroads were to eliminate punitive penalties for attendance in instances where workers were unavailable to work due to hospitalization and the punitive penalty for 1 unpaid day used for medical appointments or procedures, provided that the railroad approve the day in advance and that it only occur on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday.

Union leadership was clear upon presenting the tentative agreement that they did not endorse the terms, but felt compelled to offer membership a chance to vote on the terms. Leadership was convinced that pursuant to the 1926 Rail Labor Act, Congress would act to impose terms on September 16 before a strike could significantly disrupt operations. Such action would also deny rank and file membership any opportunity to directly weigh in on terms. After the final ratification voting totals were announced on November 21, with 4 unions rejecting the tentative agreement, the strike date of December 9 was set. Rail workers and their union leaders have understood throughout the bargaining process that the railroads have stuck to their position in the belief that Congress would never allow a work disruption to threaten the fragile supply chain. If railroads believed themselves to be vulnerable to the losses that could be incurred by any other industry vulnerable to a workers' strike, they'd have never have held the positions that they did.

The rhetoric and resoluteness that came from the President and Congressional leadership this week was shocking to railroad workers. We understand that the consequences of a work stoppage could be damaging not only to the economy but also to the political fortunes of those in power. Nonetheless, rail unions have been tireless advocates for Democratic candidates and policies for a long time. The willingness of leadership to subvert the collective bargaining process appears to many of us to be a betrayal of both our loyalty and their stated principles. It also appears to play into the Republican narrative that Democrats are only concerned with the concerns of "elites," and have turned their back on the working class. The House's approval of H.R. 100, imposing contractual terms on us, is a major disappointment. Perhaps the progressive wing of the party feels the same shock and disappointment we do, because H.R. 149, advanced by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), mandating 7 paid sick days for rail workers, came as major surprise. H.R. 149 also passed yesterday on nearly straight party lines. If the Senate approves both bills, rail labor will see it as a major victory. If the tentative agreement had included 7 paid sick days, it would have been overwhelmingly ratified across the board. However if H.R. 100 passes and H.R. 149 is either defeated or tabled, it will be felt as a painful blow to rail workers. It is also likely that if H.R. 149 fails to be enacted, many rail worker will see it as ploy that was designed to provide Democrats cover for denying us the right to strike and to continue bargaining for our contract, while shifting blame to the Republicans.

If readers would like to know more about the direction of the industry in the last 5 years, and the positions of the unions, see here and here.

Thank you for your report, J.G. And since J.G. wrote in, as we note above, the Senate did pass the main bill while rejecting the paid sick days bill. Perhaps things like this help explain why culture wars issues work. After all, if neither party is delivering on kitchen table stuff, then might as well go with the party that's delivering on the culture stuff. (Z)

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