THE RAILROAD SETTLEMENT SHORTCHANGES WORKERS

As you’ve probably heard, the threat of a railroad workers’ strike was ended by a new contract imposed by the federal government. The Biden administration brokered a tentative agreement last September after almost three years of unsuccessful bargaining by the workers’ unions and the railroad corporations. However, some of the workers’ unions voted against the proposed settlement, largely because they didn’t feel it adequately addressed some quality-of-life issues; in particular, it lacked paid sick days.

(Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.)

Four of the 12 railroad workers’ unions, but those representing a majority of the workers, voted against the proposed contract, which included only one paid sick day. Congress passed a bill that President Biden signed which has imposed the proposed contract on railroad workers because a rail strike would have had serious negative effects on the economy, which is never a good thing but especially not just before the December holidays.

The new contract that was imposed, which covers 115,000 workers, would:

  • Allow workers to take days off for medical care without being penalized, but only one of those days would be paid. (The unions had asked for 15 days of paid sick leave.)
  • Increase pay by 24% over five years, going back to 2020 when the last contract expired, bringing the average workers’ pay to $110,000 in 2024.
  • Provide more worker-friendly work schedules.
  • Keep workers’ health care premiums at current levels.

In addition to the bill imposing the contract, a separate bill was passed by the House but rejected by the Senate (the vote was 52 in favor, including six Republicans, but the filibuster requires 60 votes to pass) that would add seven days of paid sick time to the contract. This paid sick time would cost the railroad corporations an estimated $321 million a year. Given the over $20 billion a year in profits the six big railroad corporations are making, this is less than 2% of their record profits.

President Biden could require the railroads to provide seven paid sick days to the railroad workers through an executive order. An executive order from President Obama required companies with federal contracts to provide seven paid sick days. The railroads, which all have large, long-standing federal contracts, were exempted. President Biden could remove this exemption. Over 70 Democrats in Congress and union supporters are urging him to do so. [1] [2]

I urge you to contact President Biden to ask him to require the railroad corporations to provide their workers seven paid sick days per year. You can email President Biden at http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414.

The background for all of this is that the railroad industry is a textbook example of the extreme capitalism our current laws allow. The railroad corporations are generating very large profits for shareholders (including executives) while workers are getting squeezed very hard. Fortunately, the railroad workers are in a union so they have some power to fight back.

Extreme capitalism has allowed the railroad corporations, through consolidation, deregulation, and aggressive personnel policies, to gain so much power that they have been providing huge returns to shareholders while making life miserable for their employees. Since 1980, through mergers and acquisitions (that our government has failed to stop under antitrust laws), the 40 major railroad corporations have become six (Burlington Northern and Santa Fe [BNSF], Union Pacific, CSX, Canadian National, Norfolk Southern, and Canadian Pacific). Four of them have roughly 85% of the freight business and they operate with monopolistic power in much of their service territories. [3] (See this previous post for more background.)

The profit margin in the industry (the percentage of revenue that is profit) has soared from 15% in 2001 to 40% in 2021. A big part of this increased profitability is that the portion of revenue dedicated to paying employees has dropped from 34% to 20%. [4] In 2019, the freight railroad industry was the most profitable industry in the country with a 51% profit margin. [5]

These record profits are, for the most part, NOT being reinvested in the businesses but are being used to reward shareholders (including executives) through the buying of the corporations’ own stock and paying dividends. For the industry as a whole, these stock buybacks and dividends have totaled over $200 billion since 2010, averaging over $15 billion per year, and they are continuing. [6]

The railroad corporations have cut staff by one-third since 2016 and over 70% since 1980 as total employment in the railroad industry has dropped from 500,000 to under 135,000. This reduced workforce is generating more profits than ever for their employers but hasn’t gotten a wage increase in almost three years as their contract negotiations have dragged on and on.

Many have called the working conditions at the railroads inhumane. Workers’ schedules have been unpredictable as they have been on-call 24/7. The railroads are so thinly staffed that they can’t allow employees any flexibility and need to have them on-call at all times to keep the trains running. Workers had been penalized if they took a day off to go to the doctor or deal with a medical need. The safety of the workers and the communities the trains run through is being compromised.

It’s ironic that railroad executives, who regularly complain about and oppose government regulation, turned to the federal government to impose a contract on their workers. [7]

[1]      Meyerson, H., 12/2/22, “The rail impasse: Your questions answered,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/labor/rail-impasse-your-questions-answered/)

[2]      Conley, J., 12/9/22, “70+ lawmakers tell Biden ‘You can and you must’ provide rail workers paid sick leave,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/12/09/70-lawmakers-tell-biden-you-can-and-you-must-provide-rail-workers-paid-sick-leave)

[3]      Buck, M. J., 2/4/22, “How America’s supply chains got railroaded,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/how-americas-supply-chains-got-railroaded/)

[4]      Gardner, E., 9/13/22, “Rail strike by the numbers: Railroad profits are soaring at workers’ expense,” More Perfect Union (https://perfectunion.us/rail-profits-soaring-at-workers-expense/)

[5]      Buck, M. J., 2/4/22, see above

[6]      Stancil, K., 9/19/22, “While fighting workers, railroads made over $10 billion in stock buybacks,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/09/19/while-fighting-workers-railroads-made-over-10-billion-stock-buybacks)

[7]      Johnson, J., 11/25/22, “One day of Warren Buffett wealth gains could fund 15 days of paid sick leave for rail workers,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/11/25/one-day-warren-buffett-wealth-gains-could-fund-15-days-paid-sick-leave-rail-workers)

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