Railroad workers and unions are ramping up pressure on the US Congress and Joe Biden to address poor working conditions in the wake of the recent move to block a strike when Congress voted to impose a contract agreement.
Workers and labor activists in America have criticized that action for undermining the collective bargaining process in the US and workers’ right to strike.
Twelve labor unions representing about 115,000 railroad workers across the US had been negotiating with railway carriers since 2019 on a new union contract. By September the prospect of a strike threatened to shut down down the US railroads and hit the US economy to an estimated $2bn a day. That eventually prompted Congress – backed by the president – to impose the settlement.
“You always knew that this was the culmination of the process, you knew that Congress was going to push you back to work, you just didn’t know when and under what conditions that you’d be put back to work,” said Ross Grooters, a locomotive engineer based in Iowa and co-chair of Railroad Workers United.
Railroad workers had pushed for paid sick days to provide relief for grueling schedules caused by of labor cuts, with many workers on call 24/7 every day of the year, often having to work while sick or forgo doctor’s appointments because of their scheduling demands and strict disciplinary policies around attendance.
As conditions have worsened, railroad carriers have made record profits and spent billions of dollars on stock buybacks and dividends to shareholders. Meanwhile, US railroad jobs have declined significantly in recent years, from 1m in the 1950s to fewer than 150,000 in 2022, with drastic recent losses as the industry experienced a reduction of 40,000 workers between November 2018 and December 2020.
Now the imposed contract provides just one extra day of personal time off, with no days allotted for illnesses, and three days a year for doctor appointments with stipulations.
“The fight to guarantee paid sick leave for rail workers is not over and we will not back down until we win,” said the Transportation Trades Department of AFL-CIO in a statement. “We are committed to aggressively pursuing further action.”
Railroad workers’ unions held a rally at the US Capitol in Washington DC earlier this week to push for action on issues facing railroad workers. Additional rallies are planned in Massachusetts, Iowa, Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah and Wyoming.
More than 70 members of Congress have signed a letter urging Biden to guarantee seven days of paid sick leave for railroad workers.
The Federal Railway Administration also held a hearing on 14 December on a proposed rule to mandate a two-person train crew safety rule which is being opposed by the rail industry that has been trying to impose train crews of one worker. This week the Surface Transportation Board is also holding hearings on Union Pacific’s role in supply chain issues.
Since the contract was imposed without sick time, investors at two railroad carriers, Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern, have introduced shareholder resolutions to provide workers with a reasonable amount of paid sick time.
As the fight continues on paid sick leave, workers are already mobilizing ahead of the next contract fight, which begins in two years.
Grooters explained the recent contract fight had increased public awareness of the plight railroad workers face.
“These are very difficult jobs and the people doing them deserve lives outside of the railroad,” said Grooters. “If we can’t get relief, it’s going to be very hard to find people that are willing to do this work and we don’t want that. Continuing to reduce railroad staffing feeds into the problems we have with quality of life. We need more people working for the railroad, not less.”