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“Enough Is Enough”: Rail Workers Decry Biden’s Push to Impose Strike-Breaking Labor Deal

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President Biden is pushing Congress to block a pending nationwide rail strike and push through a contract deal that includes no sick days and is opposed by four of the 12 rail unions. Biden’s latest request is an attempt to “legislate us basically back to work, before we’ve even had a chance to strike,” says locomotive engineer and Railroad Workers United organizer Ron Kaminkow. “Workers should have the right to take off work for a reasonable amount for whatever reason they need it,” says labor professor Nelson Lichtenstein, who urges the rail workers to strike anyway.

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

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden is warning that a looming rail strike could have devastating economic consequences, and has called on House lawmakers to vote today to block the strike and force through a contract deal that raises wages by nearly 25% but includes no paid sick days and is opposed by four out of the 12 rail unions representing tens of thousands of workers. Among them is the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division, which said the move “denies Railroad Workers their right to strike while also denying them the benefit they would likely otherwise obtain if they were not denied their right to strike,” unquote.

Some progressive lawmakers are pushing back. Congressmember Jamaal Bowman tweeted Tuesday he, quote, “can’t in good conscience vote for a bill that doesn’t give rail workers the paid leave they deserve.” Lawmakers separately will vote on a proposal to add seven days of paid sick leave to the agreement, after mounting pressure. Rail workers are asking for 15 days of paid leave.

Ron Kaminkow, a locomotive engineer and organizer for Railroad Workers United, spoke to Democracy Now! Monday 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. …

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.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ron Kaminkow. He is a locomotive engineer and organizer for railroad workers’ union, speaking to Democracy Now! Monday night.

This is Democracy Now! For more on President Biden’s call for House lawmakers to vote today to block a rail strike and force through a contract deal with no paid sick days, we’re joined by Nelson Lichtenstein, distinguished professor of history at University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy.

Professor Lichtenstein, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of what’s taking place right now. President Biden has been called by some the most pro-labor president in the United States, and yet this is going against the wishes of a third of the unions, including the largest union of rail workers.

NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Yes. Glad to be here.

Well, you know, the railroads have historically been a flashpoint of sort of both labor activism and also sort of setting the model for labor relations, industrial relations for much more than a century. I mean, it was on the — in the 19th century, of course, there were bloody clashes between the Army and the railroad workers. Eugene V. Debs was put in jail when he led the 1894 rail strike out of Chicago. But then, also, in World War I, the eight-hour day came to the railroads via Woodrow Wilson’s intervention. So, it’s more than just a strike of a few tens of thousands of rail workers; it’s going to set a model.

And here, with Biden, yes, as Ron pointed out, he claims to be the most pro-labor president, and here would be an occasion in which that could be demonstrated, and also in which, in terms of whether it’s sick leave or just schedules that workers can live with, this would be a rail victory here, a better contract, in an industry which is in fact making enormous profits, could set a pattern for lots of other workers.

And I’ll say one more thing here which I think is, in this moment of kind of both sort of heightened labor activism but also enormous resistance, not just a better contract put forward in Congress, which could happen — Bernie Sanders has declared that he will not vote for the bill in the Senate unless it has more sick days, etc., but I think that the delay — a delay in Congress coming to a decision on this will enable the rail workers to actually begin a strike. And I think a strike, a national strike, which I think the industry will cave once the strike takes place, because they have the money and they aren’t going to go to the mat for their model of egregious industrial relations — a national strike would be a very salutary thing. It would demonstrate unequivocally the power of labor, which needs to be demonstrated, so every Starbucks barista, every UC striker, every worker out there who’s thinking about forming a union, they will say, “Yes, these workers have demonstrated power.” And there’s enormous public support for the rail strikers, for any striker today. I mean, we’re in a very rare moment, and this is the time to demonstrate that and to put that forward.

And I think that, certainly, a congressional — I’ll just say that I think Biden’s effort to force the old contract, which was signed before the election, you know — and, OK, we can’t have a strike before the election — his effort to force that contract through Congress, I think it’s going to fail. And it might pass the House, but I think it’s going to fail in the Senate. And I think that’s going to give the opportunity for something much better to take place, and possibility for a — I think it will be a short, sharp but very potent strike that could take place.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Professor Lichtenstein, I wanted to ask you — corporate America obviously is putting a lot of pressure on Congress and the White House, claiming that there will be basically an economic apocalypse if this strike occurs. But I’m wondering, over the last 20 years, much of corporate America has gotten into this notion of just-in-time production, where their warehouses are basically empty, and so they actually depend more than ever now on the transportation system providing them goods for manufacture. I’m wondering if this, in essence, this just-in-time production method, is predicated on no possibility of labor disruption. Your sense of how that plays in?

NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Yes, that’s absolutely the case. That’s true whether it’s auto production or the logistics revolution, which brought stuff from China. Yes, the just-in-time is predicated on labor weakness, because, obviously, if you — labor can gum that up if there’s a strike or a delay. We’ve seen that now. It has [inaudible] to do with the logistics problems as created in just-in-time production, all sorts of shortages and probably a spike in inflation.

And I’ll just say, all strikes, you know, discomfort somebody. And that’s the whole point. It’s the only weapon that labor has. And so, sometimes it’s just corporate profits are reduced, but sometimes the public is discomforted, whether it’s a hospital strike or a strike of municipal employees or something of that sort. So, yes, a strike of the rail workers will have a discomforting impact. I think it will increase the pressure on management to cave.

But let me say one thing. We just came through a pandemic in which the U.S. government did something far more dramatic than a rail strike. It shut down every business in this country, you know, for a while in the spring of the year 2020, because there was an overwhelming reason to do that. I mean, it created one of the sharpest recessions in America. We recovered from it. Well, you know, in that context, a short rail strike is just — is kind of symbolic in terms of the entire economy. And so, I think we should see that not as something cataclysmic at all, but this is exercising the power of labor and demonstrating that to millions of other workers who are thinking about organizing, thinking about — and maybe thinking about strikinng.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m wondering if you could comment on the role of the Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who’s a presidential hopeful in the future still, his role in not being able to negotiate an end to the possibility of a strike.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What authority does he or doesn’t he have that he hasn’t used so far?

NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Well, obviously, they have many — they have lots of regulatory authority, where they can tell the carriers that, you know, either in terms of safety, health and welfare, that, you know, they have to accommodate the unions. I mean, it’s remarkable that neither Marty Walsh, the secretary of labor, who is very involved in this, or Buttigieg or the interior secretary, that they could use their collective governmental clout to have the carriers give in.

What the carriers have decided to do, they cut the workforce by about a quarter to a third in the last decade, and they’ve had — and therefore, that saved them tons of money, and they’ve instituted this draconian system of labor availability, which means that workers have very, very few days off.

I would just make one point. Another logistics industry, the longshore, has the same sort of system. That is, workers with greater seniority go to the bottom of the list. But the longshore union has been able — controls its own hiring halls, and therefore it’s made certain that workers have time off when they want it and they can take time off, they have flexibility. On the railroads, it’s the carriers who control sort of the hiring hall, we call it, and therefore they’ve squeezed labor and really made it so that workers have to be available 90% of the time.

I’ll make one other point, too. People talk about sick days. And, of course, that’s one of the reasons people need time off. But it’s not just sick days. Workers should have the right to take off work, you know, in a reasonable amount, for whatever reason they need it — if they want to go bowling, you know, and that’s a good time, or be with their family or something. It’s not just sick days. That’s just — we use that word, “sick days,” because it’s obvious that you have to go to the doctor. Now that’s difficult on the railroads. But I think that we need to establish a system where the flexibility of work is not just the employer who wants flexible workers to be there whenever they want them, but workers themselves can choose, within reason, when they want to work, when they don’t. And the longshore union has established that system on the docks, and it’s a very admirable one, and it’s lasted for 70 years.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, you’re a UC professor, University of California. We’re going to talk about this massive UC strike that’s taking place in our next segment with you and two grad students. But before we go, I wanted to ask you about one other issue after the rail strike, and that’s the significance of Amazon, ordered by the NLRB, the National Labor Relations Board, to cease and desist anti-union efforts —


AMY GOODMAN: — and this week must read out that public notice to workers at the Staten Island warehouse that won the right to unionize last April.

NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Well, yeah, of course, that’s important. And the NLRB is getting much more aggressive under their new general counsel. And I think that was a nationwide — not just applying to Staten Island but nationwide, that Amazon has been violating the law, and they have to read out a statement saying that workers have rights and they can’t be retaliated against.

But I make this point. I mean, that’s important, but that’s not decisive. What will be decisive, and it could take place, is a linkage between federal antitrust activities under Lina Khan at the Federal Trade Commission and the NLRB. And they are talking to each other. That’s an unprecedented thing, that the antitrust people in the Biden administration, who are very pro-labor, and the NLRB people are talking to each other.

And what needs to happen with Amazon and these other tech companies who are anti-union is the threat and the redefinition of antitrust as not just having to do with prices but having to do with labor relations and wages, and a threat to Amazon’s business model. That is, you know, unless you fire your anti-union law firms and have an actually neutral workplace where workers can vote to be in a union, your business model is going to be threatened, and your acquisitions are going to be threatened in the future. And I think that threat is on the horizon, and I think it’s an innovation that’s very important in terms of revitalizing the labor law, and the clout behind the labor law, which has been missing for many, many decades.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Professor Nelson Lichtenstein, we want to ask you to stay with us — Professor Lichtenstein teaches history at University of California, Santa Barbara, directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy — as we move on to talk about the largest strike in the history of American higher education, taking place on the campuses of the University of California. Stay with us.

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