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Railroad workers were given a ‘one-two punch’ from the White House and Republicans. They say they aren’t giving up.

Rail workers tell Richard Hall why they are disappointed in the Biden administration for blocking strike action and imposing a deal that left out paid sick leave.

Sunday 04 December 2022 11:46 GMT
Railroad Contract Talks
Railroad Contract Talks (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Will Wisniewski, a 40-year-old train conductor from Seattle, is sick with the flu. His wife, who is eight months pregnant, is also sick. So are his kids. Most people in his position would take time off work to recover and take care of their family, but Mr Wisniewski works for the railroad, and he doesn’t have that right.

“Who is supposed to take care of my kids? I can’t even tag team with my wife and give her a break,” Mr Wisniewski told The Independent on Thursday.

After more than two years of negotiations between railway unions and rail companies, and later the White House, Congress voted on Thursday to deny him that right for the foreseeable future.

In a rushed early evening vote in the Senate, Republicans and Democrats passed a bill that imposed a deal to increase wages for railway workers while blocking any potential strike action. In a separate vote, Republicans blocked the provision of seven days paid sick leave — a key demand and underlying cause for the threatened strike next month.

Joe Biden, who came to power promising to be the most pro-union president in American history and has referred to himself as “Amtrak Joe” for his reliance on the trains, praised the bill’s passing as “the right thing to do at the moment,” and claimed that it avoided “an economic catastrophe.”

But railroad workers expressed anger following the vote, both with Republicans for voting en masse against their request for paid sick leave, and with Mr Biden for forcing through a deal that was rejected by the majority of union members, blocking strike action in the process.

“Everyone knew our government would let us down. Our unions selling us out — that was a surprise. My only consolation is now we have names of reps and senators that sold us out,” Mr Wisniewski said.

In a statement released after the vote, Railway Workers United, a cross-union caucus of railway workers, described it as a “one-two punch at the hands of, first the Democratic Party; the second served up by the Republicans.”

“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,” RWU General Secretary Jason Doering said in a statement released on Friday.

Paid sick leave emerged as a key demand of railroad workers in negotiations with America’s major freight-rail carriers, which have been ongoing since January 2020.

I can’t believe I have to ask, ya know? I would have thought that a pandemic would have convinced every employer to re-evaluate their sick leave policy. Just shocking.

Will Wisniewski, a train conductor from Seattle.

Paid sick leave is a benefit enjoyed by more than two thirds of private sector employees in the United States, but rail workers are forced to use vacation time to see doctors or recover. That process requires approval and forewarning that sickness rarely allows.

Ross Grooters, a locomotive engineer and co-chair of Railroad Workers United in Iowa, told The Independent that inadequate staffing was the root cause of the dispute.

“Railroad workers are being asked to do more work, with fewer people, faster. It’s causing a lot of stress and an inability to live lives outside of the railroad,” they told The Independent by phone on Thursday. “Most freight railroad workers are on call 24/7, 365 days a year, and don’t know when they’ll be going to work very far in advance. And so we can’t plan for things like a doctor’s visit even next week without the potential for disciplinary action.”

They added: “We used to have adequate staffing to be able to account for those kinds of absences, but the railroads have cut staffing to the bare bones to where the railroad can’t function without people constantly working.”

Grooters said the unpredictability of their schedules and inability to take vacation means they are forced to work through sickness, to the detriment of their health.

“It has literally killed railroad workers because they’ve put off doctors visits and had a heart attack,” they said. “There’s been times when I’ve missed doctor’s appointments or gone to work when maybe I probably should have stayed home to take care of myself.”

When negotiations between unions and the rail companies stalled, rail workers threatened to strike. Rail carried about 28 per cent of US freight before the pandemic, according to federal data — second only to trucking.

Facing uncertain economic headwinds and warnings of a recession, the Biden administration moved quickly to prevent a walkout. The White House used an obscure law, the 1926 Railway Labour Act, to intervene in the dispute and broker a deal between the unions and the rail companies. Crucially, the key demand of seven paid sick days was left out. Four of the 12 unions, representing a combined membership of 60,000 workers — more than half of total union members — voted against the deal and threatened to strike. But all of the unions, representing some 115,000 freight rail workers, had agreed to respect the picket line unless it was ratified by all of them.

Faced with the prospect of a crippling strike, Mr Biden urged Congress to evoke the Constitution’s commerce clause, which allows it to regulate interstate commerce, to block the proposed action and ratify the deal. That vote passed 80-15 in the Senate. It was the first time since the 1990s that it used that power to intervene in a national rail dispute.

A second vote to allow seven days of paid sick leave for rail workers, proposed by Bernie Sanders, was defeated 52-43, failing to reach the required filibuster-proof 60 votes. The only Republican Senators to vote in favour of the measure were Mike Braun of Indiana, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Kennedy of Louisiana.

Even though railway workers failed to achieve their key demand, the threatened strike highlighted what many describe as unfair working practices in the rail industry fuelled by owners eager to maximise profits at the expense of their employees.

Mr Wisniewski, who has worked in the Pacific North West for Union Pacific since 2014, said the Biden administration’s move to block a strike severely weakened the unions on their negotiations with rail companies.

He said he had hoped for a deal “where the carrier treats their human capital like human beings.”

“I can’t believe I have to ask, ya know? I would have thought that a pandemic would have convinced every employer to re-evaluate their sick leave policy. Just shocking,” he added.

Grooters, meanwhile, said Mr Biden’s image as a pro-union president is likely to take a dent after his intervention in this dispute.

“Don’t tell me who you are; show me. His actions speak louder than his words. And I don’t think this is a pro-labor decision  — to put us back to work without addressing the issues that we were asking to be addressed,” they said.

Republicans, they added, “are not our friends, for sure.”

“They wanna have the best of both worlds where they don’t have to do anything for us, but they can take credit for bashing Democrats. And so we’re sort of caught in this game of politics between the two sides,” Grooters said.

They added that despite the Senate vote, the fight for paid sick leave was not over.

“There’s no such thing as an illegal strike. There are only strikes that are unsuccessful,” they said. “That’s not me advocating necessarily. But at the end of the day, we’re trying to make the workplace better for all of us, as workers, and that work’s gotta continue, regardless of Congress’s decision.”

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