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Biden Sides with Big Business & Urges Congress to Block Major Freight Rail Strike

Web ExclusiveNovember 29, 2022
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In labor news, President Biden has sided with big business and has urged Congress to intervene to block freight rail workers from going on strike, saying it could devastate the economy. On Monday, Biden asked lawmakers to quickly pass legislation to impose a labor deal that has been opposed by the majority of freight rail workers. Ron Kaminkow, a locomotive engineer and organizer for Railroad Workers United, spoke to Democracy Now! last night. “We could have seen Biden actually opt for telling Congress he would like to see Congress pass legislation that mediates an end to the conflict under which more favorable terms to the workers, which is to say a handful of sick days,” Kaminkow said. “And that’s what this has come down to.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In labor news, President Biden has sided with big business and has urged Congress to intervene to block freight rail workers from going on strike, saying it could devastate the economy. On Monday, Biden asked lawmakers to quickly pass legislation to impose a labor deal that’s been opposed by the majority of freight rail workers.

In a statement, Biden said, quote, “As a proud pro-labor President, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement. But in this case — where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families — I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal,” Biden said.

Many union activists criticized Biden’s move to block a strike. Ron Kaminkow, a locomotive engineer and organizer for Railroad Workers United, spoke to Democracy Now! last night.

RON KAMINKOW: So, unfortunately, the “most labor-friendly president,” quote-unquote, we’ve ever had basically has opted to side with Class One carriers, Class One rail carriers, because he had the opportunity — and he’s had that opportunity since this whole debacle began — to basically urge, coax, cajole and otherwise badger and bully the rail carriers into meeting what are very, very modest demands of rank-and-file railroad workers. And in his latest request here to Congress to legislate us basically back to work, before we’ve even had a chance to strike, under the terms and conditions of the tentative agreement, which is not very popular with the rank and file. We have — unions that represent 55% of rail labor have voted this contract down.

And so, we could have seen Biden actually opt for telling Congress he would like to see Congress pass legislation that mediates an end to the conflict under which more favorable terms to the workers, which is to say a handful of sick days. And that’s what this has come down to. Railroad workers traditionally have had no sick time. And now with the very, very harsh attendance policies that we’re faced with, railroad workers get very, very little time off work.

And it has come to a crunch point. We’re seeing workers leaving the industry in droves, in numbers never, ever believed possible. People with 15 and 20 years’ seniority are leaving the industry. And there’s a crisis out there. And I don’t believe the Biden administration quite understands the depth of this crisis.

And I don’t think they understand that they could have actually taken an approach that would have benefited rail labor, and potentially benefited the rail industry itself. Instead, unfortunately, the president is urging Congress to basically legislate an agreement based upon what he brokered along with Marty Walsh, the secretary of labor, two months ago. But the rank and file had made it very clear that they are not content with this contract that simply does not address the quality-of-work-life issues.

AMY GOODMAN: This all comes as profits soar for the freight rail industry, which has reduced the rail workforce by 30% over the last six years.

RON KAMINKOW: Since I entered the industry more than a quarter-century ago, I have watched as the rail industry has made record profits. The operating ratio when I hired in, I believe, was somewhere in the mid-80s. It dropped into the 70s, 60s. The rail industry is hell-bent on achieving a 0.50 operating ratio. And who knows where they might even want to go from there? Stock buybacks has reached record proportion. The dividends that have been paid out to stockholders are enormous. Warren Buffett, for one, who bought BNSF outright a decade ago, will state unequivocally that his investment has paid off to him way more than he even expected it to. The wealth that has been accumulated by these rail carriers over the last quarter-century, while they have moved less freight than they did 16 years ago.

Shippers from practically every major shipping group that ships by rail is in a state of total discontent. They have complained vociferously to the Surface Transportation Board, demanding better service. The rail industry has gouged their customers. They’ve shed themselves of about a third of their employees in the last six years. And they’ve basically pissed off just about everybody in the country except for their stockholders.

And now we come down to the wire in contract negotiations, where literally what separates the parties is a handful of sick time, sick time that most workers actually have achieved decades and decades ago, but railroad workers have traditionally gone without. And we finally have said enough is enough. We want a handful of sick days. And yet the rail carriers see fit to dig in their heels, these Fortune 500 companies who have made, like I say, record profits these last 25 years, and refuse to give us anything.

And unfortunately, the Biden administration is incapable of siding unequivocally with us. As the most labor friendly president ever, we would have expected that from him. So, there’s a lot of — a lot of upset and a lot of discontent right now amongst the working railroaders.

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