Domestic Affairs

Lessons from 2022: Railroad Resolution Against the Worker

House Joint Resolution 100 of the 117th Congress became law on December 2, 2022. The resolution, introduced in the House three days prior, disregards the labor rights of 115,000 railroad workers. This shameful decision came easily to America’s decadent representatives, yet the three days it took to upend the democracy of railroaders is the disappointing result of three years of struggle to gain a fair contract for railroad workers. 

The exploitation facing the railroad worker has been unabashed in the last decades. Starting in 1979, railroad workers, alongside the majority of the American working class, have suffered from stagnant wages that do not match the increase in economic productivity. Unionized railroaders had not seen an increase in pay for the three years prior to H.J.R 100, yet they had to work ceaselessly through the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns. To exacerbate the railroad worker’s struggle of working through a pandemic, they are also the victims of an inhumane “attendance point system” which offers zero sick days. If a worker is unwell, they must inform their employer in advance. Then they must subtract the time it takes them to recover from their vacation days, thus leaving the railroader with the cruel choice of spending time healing from injury and illness or spending time with their loved ones. 

Alongside poor working conditions, railroad workers have been subjected to significant terminations as a direct result of the policy of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR). PSR is a controversial policy employed by all but one Class 1 railroad in North America that aims to improve efficiency by reducing crew size, increasing car amounts, consolidating yards and dispatch centers, and drastically reducing operating costs. PSR is an operational system that cuts corners to increase profits, and companies employing this system are facing criticism for their ‘slash-and-burn’ methods. This system is straining railroader’s livelihoods by working to remove the conductor from the standard conductor-engineer duo needed to operate a train safely. The transition to PSR has caused a 30 percent decline in freight employment from 2016 to 2022 and has increased the remaining railroader’s workload as a result. 

The callous disregard Class 1 railroad companies like Norfolk Southern have for the safety of their workers and the countless communities their trains run through is the immediate cause of the frightening derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Dozens of train cars containing hazardous chemicals derailed in an industrial disaster that caused thousands to temporarily evacuate. As fifty ton vehicles filled with dangerous cargo fly off the tracks and disrupt the lives of thousands, Precision Scheduled Railroading remains tantalizingly lucrative for the capitalists that own Norfolk Southern and other Class 1 railroads. PSR has contributed to record profits for the railroad companies, profits that have not been enjoyed by the workers. On page 30 of the report to President Biden issued by Presidential Emergency Board 250 it is noted that during the 2016-2019 contract period, “employee compensation increased by 13.8%” in the railroad industry while “CEO compensation increased by 111%”. In a 2018 interview, Union Pacific’s CEO even gloated, “We’re in the process of eliminating 500 jobs [and] there’s more of that to come.” This sort of gross industrial consolidation pursued by railroad companies is actively cutting the labor force of the union with the intention of rendering them irrelevant in a fully automated world. Precision Scheduled Railroading sets the precedent for the callous destruction of thousands of livelihoods not just in the railroad industry but for all sectors of the economy. 

Conditions were poor for the railroad workers in 2022 as well, but their hopes remained in the 12 railroad unions comprising the Coordinated Bargaining Coalition (CBC). This organization negotiates with the National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC), the equivalent group representing the railroad companies. However, negotiations broke down after it was quickly realized that the gap between what the CBC hoped for and what the NCCC was willing to give was too wide. The interests of capital and labor can never be fully reconciled, but in this case, the NCCC’s deal was an extreme case of ‘corporate extortion’ against the workers. The railroad unions represented by the CBC proposed on page 17 of their report to the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) a 31.3 percent wage increase over the course of the five-year period. The railroad companies represented by the NCCC offered a 16 percent pay raise over the course of the same five-year period. To contextualize these proposed wage increases into real wages, it is necessary to look at the Consumer Price Index (CPI-W) estimates of a 25.8 percent increase in the cost of essential goods caused by inflation over the next five years. When adjusted for real wages, the NCCC’s offer is a 9.8 percent decrease in real wages, while the CBC’s proposal is a 5.5 percent increase. On top of what would really amount to a pay cut, the NCCC refused to address the harmful effects of PSR and did not budge on the CBC’s requests for seven annual sick days. 

Aware of the plight of the economically crucial railroad worker and of the breakdown of negotiations, the Biden administration chose to postpone the threat of a strike with a quick deal proposed by the Presidential Emergency Board on September 15, 2022. This deal ignored the CBC’s concerns over the lack of sick days and increased terminations caused by PSR. In reality, it amounted to a bribe. Biden’s Presidential Emergency Board’s proposed a 24 percent pay increase over the course of the five year contract, on top of an immediate 14.1 percent pay raise and a $1,000-dollar annual lump sum. When the deal is calculated with consideration given to the Consumer Price Index, Biden’s offer comes out at a 12.3 percent increase in earnings. Although this rate is seemingly generous, the 2022 midterm elections perfectly contextualizes this move by the Presidential Emergency Board. This facade of sympathy by the Biden administration was a successful effort to schedule any major labor dispute that might disrupt the economy to happen after the 2022 election season. The PEB’s proposed deal was being voted on by the 115,000 railroad workers at the same time in which the Democratic Party was securing control of the Senate. 

In the weeks beyond the midterms, the rank and file members of the 12 railroad unions voted 60 percent against accepting the terms mediated by the Presidential Emergency Board. It was during the weeks approaching December that the threat of a national railroad strike was the nearest to realization in 30 years. During this time, the Democratic and Republican parties trampled over the rights of labor to collectively bargain with remarkable alacrity and thereby dashed the hopes of any improvement beyond that offered by the Presidential Emergency Board in September. It mattered not what color party was in control of Congress. Likewise, the celebrated ‘most pro-labor’ President Biden condoned the violation of worker’s rights in the name of economic security. Union Pacific, one of the largest railroad companies in the United States, posted record profits less than two months after the decision to restrict railroad labor with another unfair contract. 

Historically, this is not uncommon. The last railroad strike in 1992 lasted three days and was quickly made illegal through a bipartisan effort under the Clinton administration. The 1926 Railroad Act is what empowers the government to mediate disputes between railroad workers and their employers. This act allows for the creation of a presidential emergency board and is what renders the unions of rail and air powerless in their attempts to collectively bargain. The government has shown that it can and will intervene on the side of capital — always. Any further attempts to protest after the House Joint Resolution result in the American worker being labeled a criminal and their union being subject to governmental decertification

It is imperative to understand that there is but a thin line of laws which separates the modern American worker from the labor wars of the 19th and 20th centuries. Bloody scenes of the oppressed worker slaughtered by company thugs and state militia, such as in the case of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, must be remembered. The contemporary American working class must remain wary of their employer’s and their government’s masks of humanity that would mercilessly be shed during times of class conflict. The best President Biden and the rest of America’s “pro-labor” representatives can do to remedy their failure to support railroad workers is to win their elections against more aggressively “pro-boss” candidates and to stay out of labor disputes altogether. As 71 percent of Americans now approve of labor unions, it is clear that in a direct democracy there would have been no question of supporting the railroad workers, who are vital to the United States economy, in their fight against the avaricious railroad owners, who are not. 

The dream of the American people has always been about respect. If employers and owners will not respect the working class, then the working class in turn will begin to disrespect the laurels of power that their masters rest on. They will realize that respect can exist between themselves and they will organize to gain their rights as workers. There is salvation for the worker in their peers. According to the National Labor Relations Board, understanding workers’ rights is the first step to organizing safely and smartly and is something all workers can do to improve their communities. The labor movement marches on. Though the events of 2022 are a setback for the worker, it is a setback which exists in the context of more than two centuries of industrial American labor history. 

 “Don’t waste any time mourning—organize!

Categories: Domestic Affairs

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