Rail workers, one top union leader express outrage over forced deal
LM Otero/AP

WASHINGTON – Rail workers, plus one top outside union leader, remained irate at the Congress and Democratic President Joe Biden, for short circuiting the collective bargaining process and for pushing a settlement they had rejected.

But their targets varied and so did their anger. In addition to Republicans, some hit both  political parties including President Biden. Postal Workers President Mark Dimondstein added AFL-CIO leaders to the mix, for not mobilizing the entire union movement behind the railroaders.

Railroad Workers United, a rank-and-file organization covering all rail crafts, reiterated its call for nationalizing the railroads. Dimondstein seconded that. If Congress and Biden “seriously considered the national interest…they should seriously consider nationalizing the railroads, too,” he said.

And RWU, a longtime critic of rail union disunity, also declared rail workers “should do away with the archaic and divided craft union system” and unite in one large union. They did in the 1890s under famed labor leader Eugene V. Debs, though RWU didn’t say so.

Much criticism focused on lawmakers and Biden not continuing to fight the profitable railroads’ refusal to even talk about—much less negotiate about—paid sick days and other bosses’ practices that reduce the quality of workers’ lives. Others, Dimondstein included, blasted lawmakers and Biden for undermining labor’s ultimate weapon, the right to strike.

All the flak centered around the contract Congress and Biden imposed on the 115,000 unionized freight rail workers, an outcome legal under the 1925 Railway Labor Act. The contract gave the workers a 24% raise over five years, a $1,000 yearly bonus per worker, and froze worker health insurance payments, among other financial benefits.

But the workers responded that while pay was and is a problem—they haven’t had a raise, except cost-of-living hikes, since 2019—working conditions were the biggest issue. The workers originally demanded 15 paid sick days and controls on when the railroads could arbitrarily call them back to work after forcing them to toil for two or three weeks straight. The railroads refused to even discuss sick days.

A Biden-named board recommended the cash parts of the deal, but that was all. The Democratic-run House approved the financial deal by a large margin, and seven sick days—in separate legislation—by a narrow party-line vote. The evenly split Senate OKed the financial deal, and rejected the sick days. Biden signed the pay deal.

And all of this overrode the point of having and encouraging collective bargaining in the first place, irate railroaders said. So did Dimondstein. So did AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Greg Regan and Secretary-Treasurer Sheri Samelsberger.

“Let’s be clear what happened here: Ultimately, freight railroads refused to bargain in good faith and did not listen to their workers,” they said in a statement. “The rail industry’s unchecked corporate greed and bad faith bargaining efforts forced this contract fight to run the full course of the Railway Labor Act, landing at the doorstep of” Biden and Congress.

“While we are grateful to the 52 Senators, 218 House Democrats, and three lone House Republicans who stood with rail workers by voting for seven days of paid sick leave, the harsh reality is too many elected leaders turned their backs on their constituents. Shame on the 43 Senators and 207 House Republicans who abandoned the working class and sided with billion-dollar rail corporations.”

Both the main pact and the seven-days-leave bill needed 60 Senate votes to pass. The main pact won, 80-15. But 43 senatorial “nos—42 Republicans and renegade West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin—were enough to kill paid sick leave. The vote was 52-43.

RWU pointed out that a majority of rail workers had voted to reject the Biden-brokered contract. While eight of the 12 unions it covered approved the deal, several small unions did so via their boards, not by rank-and-file votes. In those mandating a popular vote, the overall majority voted “no.”

Overrode worker voices and desires

“In effect, their actions simply overrode our voices and desires,” RWU said of the lawmakers and Biden. “Rail workers–like all workers–should have the right to bargain collectively and to freely engage in strike activity if and when the members see fit and when they democratically elect to do so.”

“Politicians are happy to voice platitudes and heap praise upon us for our heroism throughout the pandemic, the essential nature of our work, the difficult and dangerous and demanding conditions of our jobs. Yet when the steel hits the rail, they back the powerful and wealthy Class One rail carriers every time,” added RWU General Secretary Jason Doering.

“The rail carriers are too powerful and are a scourge to the national economy,” RWU Steering Committee Member Paul Lindsey, said, reiterating the group’s demand for nationalization of the railroads. “They need to be taken into public ownership and run in the interest of workers, shippers, passengers, and the nation, not a handful of wealthy stockholders.”

Dimondstein focused on overriding the right to strike. He also took aim at the AFL-CIO for not mobilizing all of labor to back the rail workers.

“The right to strike, the right of all workers to withhold their labor to improve their well-being, is a fundamental and vital working class right,” he said. “While striking is hard on workers, it is a powerful weapon of last resort when workers face off against greedy, unscrupulous companies and their benefactors of Wall Street finance capital.”

“It is outrageous these obscenely profitable railroads refused the workers’ just demands and that Congress came down on the side of the bosses and corporate greed and became strike breakers.”

“Many labor leaders claim that Joe Biden is ‘the most pro-union president,’” Dimondstein continued. After lauding Biden’s pro-union stands and actions, including this year’s postal reform law, “the labor struggle in rail was a fundamental test of ‘Which Side Are You On,’ to quote the old labor song.

“This administration and the majority of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and Senate failed the test” by imposing the pact and rejecting the sick leave. “Unfortunately, the AFL-CIO’s top leadership failed to organize a united resistance to the pending congressional action against the railroad workers, nor have they condemned Congress’ overriding the workers’ collective bargaining rights, along with their right to strike.”

Tweeters focused on the political sellout.

“Pretty sure WE didn’t reach a contract,” tweeted “Highball4Change.”

“I think the government enforced one upon us. The same government who took our right to fight for fair labor away. The same government that depended on our #labor so much, that they had to sign an executive order to make sure we kept working.”

“This falls squarely in Biden’s lap,” tweeted Katie Sutton, who calls herself Midwest Wicked. “He could have allowed the unions to do the negotiations and forced the carriers to the table. But instead he was afraid of what a strike would do to his economy.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.