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Railroad Workers Furious Over Biden Board’s Contract Proposal

Unions express disappointment with the draft deal as a national rail stand-off looms.

An emergency board appointed by President Biden issued recommendations for a national railroad contract on Tuesday that fell far short of what rail unions had pushed for, prompting tepid reactions from union leaders and outrage and dismay from many rank-and-file workers.

Roughly 115,000 railroad workers have been laboring without a contract for the past 3 years amid a standoff with the powerful carriers that dominate the U.S. rail industry. If the two sides don’t reach a new agreement by September 16, rail unions are allowed to authorize a national railroad strike, and carriers can launch a worker lock-out. Either action would likely paralyze the country’s already-burdened supply chain.

A Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) was appointed last month to draft a compromise proposal. With rail carriers reaping record profits, unions came to the bargaining table asking for wage and benefit increases that would reflect the sacrifice rail workers made to keep goods flowing during the pandemic, as well as high inflation that strained workers who have been without raises for nearly 3 years.

The PEB proposal fell short of most of the unions’ demands. Its most worker-friendly recommendation was on wages, where the PEB called for a 22 percent increase over 5 years. That’s less than the 31 percent raise that unions had sought, but still the largest prospective pay increase for rail labor in over four decades.

Workers also sought expanded health care benefits, including coverage for family members in need of autism services, and expanded coverage for hearing loss treatment. While the PEB recommended the carriers meet those demands, they also proposed lifting the current 15% cap on the percentage of income workers could have to pay toward health care. Labor advocates noted that lifting this cap will likely eat into the proposed wage increases and open the door for carriers to shift the burden of health care costs to workers.

The PEB failed to take a position on key issues that unions have sought to negotiate for decades, including a demand for 15 days of paid sick leave. Rail workers currently aren’t guaranteed any sick leave, leaving them subject to the policies of each individual carrier. The PEB punted the issue back to the unions and carriers to negotiate, or to binding arbitration, which many in labor view as a guaranteed loss.

It did the same on the issue of attendance policies. Earlier this year, workers at the BNSF carrier voted overwhelmingly to strike after the company imposed a draconian new point system for tracking attendance that allowed workers only one day off per month and penalized them extra for taking off on weekends or holidays. A federal court declared the issue a minor dispute, blocking workers from striking. 

The PEB offered no recommendation for fairer time-off policies, nor for staffing minimums. Railroads have slashed staffing by 29 percent in the past 6 years, according to the unions, and carriers want to begin using one-person crews on many lines. Union demands for two-person crew minimums were also punted by the PEB.

Rail workers condemned the PEB recommendations in a flurry of comments in social media groups and to reporters. “The PEB did not do their job,” John Frahm, a conductor with 22 years of service, told More Perfect Union. “This is a slap in the face. It’s clear that DC works for corporate America, not the citizens,” echoed Brady Johnson, a veteran conductor.

SMART-TD, the railroad union representing a lionshare of rail workers, called the PEB proposal a “vast improvement over the carriers’ previous proposals,” but said “the recommendations do not go far enough to provide our members with the quality of life that they have earned, and that both they and their families deserve.”

“Truthfully,” the statement continued, “your union negotiators feel a level of disappointment with the PEB’s recommendations falling short on many of our requests.”

Railroad workers we spoke to were more blunt. “The supply chain problems are about to go from bad to much worse real quick if something doesn’t change for the better for workers real soon,” said Nathan Bayer, an engineer for a major carrier. “This is on the verge of being a real long-term national crisis, far worse than a little one-day strike could ever cause.” 

Negotiators for the rail carriers indicated that they would accept the PEB’s recommendations even though the proposed pay increases were “significantly” higher than they wanted. According to the PEB, the rail carriers’ position is that workers have not contributed whatsoever to the industry’s historic recent profits. “The Carriers maintain that capital investment and risk are the reasons for their profits, not any contributions by labor,” the PEB states. 

An industry trade publication noted that CEOs for large railroads “typically begin quarterly earnings calls by thanking employees for their contributions,” including one CEO who last week called employees the company’s “most precious resource” during an investor conference.

Christian Sanchez, a conductor we spoke to, said of the carriers, “They have gone crazy with power, holding this country hostage for profit and nobody is willing to put them back in check.” 

A 30-day cooling off period has now begun where both sides will decide whether to ratify the PEB proposal or try to negotiate further changes. If a contract isn’t agreed to by September 16, analysts believe Congress is likely to step in to avoid a potential strike or lock-out. Railroad workers last went on strike in the 1990s, and Congress ordered them back to work before any major commerce disruptions occurred. 

But online, some workers expressed interest in defying Congress if such an order came again. “What will they do if we don’t go back, shoot us?” one worker asked in a private group. 
It just shows we cannot play by the rules,” Nathan Meldrum, another long-serving rail conductor told us. “It just won’t work. Gotta figure out a different way.”

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