OPINION: Despite Controversy, Rail Workers are Winning Paid Sick Leave

Jun 29, 2023 | Labor, Working Mass


By Paul Garver and Eli Gerzon

DISCLAIMER: The entire Working Mass board appreciates the research and reporting that went into this important article and of course the big wins for rail workers across the US. However, some members of the board strongly disagree with some of the analysis in the article especially regarding the actions by members of Democratic Socialists of America who are in Congress. This is a controversial topic across DSA. We welcome any op-eds or letters to the editor in response.

Most of the 115,000 rail workers in the US now have paid sick leave! Many workers are also getting safety improvements they have been fighting for for years. In December 2022, Biden and Congress voted to impose a contract on workers with no paid sick leave and took away their right to strike – a move that angered many socialists and other supporters of labor. How can workers get what they need when the right to strike has been taken away? And yet, rail workers have gotten these major wins. What happened and what more needs to be done?

Several factors for positive changes for railroad workers:

More attention to the issue following lobbying by rail workers and Biden’s imposed contract in December 2022

Efforts by members of Congress such as Senator Sanders and Representatives Bowman, Bush, and AOC

Bad press following the railroad catastrophe in East Palestine, Ohio

Several states have recently passed regulations requiring at least two person crews on freight trains 

Rank-and-file organizing by railroad workers especially by RWU and BMWED

Many rail workers have been quitting their increasingly stressful and dangerous jobs –  to deter quitting and recruit replacements, rail corporations have improved some conditions

A few things which have NOT caused positive changes for rail workers:

Greedy railroad barons suddenly became nice guys

Bureaucratic rail union leaders have done fundamental union restructuring and reforms so all railroad workers can boldly wield their power as a united workforce

DSA expelled Bowman, Bush, and AOC and gave up completely on electoral work that has any association with the Democratic party

Railroad Workers’ Organized for Better Conditions in 2022

Rail corporations reaped record profits during the pandemic era for people like Warren Buffet. But the workers who made that possible were denied paid sick days and forced to work under increasingly dangerous understaffed conditions. Freight trains have become longer and heavier, with safety inspections more cursory. Workers organized across 13 different craft unions with the four major rail corporations for better pay and conditions. This culminated in calls for strikes in 2022 and a vote by Congress to impose a contract at the end of the year.

Many socialists considered the votes of Congressional DSA members Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the imposed contract on rail workers to be an indictment of those individuals as anti-worker. Some also considered those votes to be an indictment of DSA, electoralism, and any association with the Democratic Party.  

It was the BMWED (Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters) Rank and File Caucus that led lobbying efforts in the fall of 2022 to get Congress to vote on an amendment to include seven paid sick leave days for rail workers. That included urging Bowman, Bush and AOC to vote for the resolution and the amendment. It was a “Hail Mary Pass” that passed the House but narrowly failed to clear the 60-vote hurdle in the Senate. Although that tactic did not succeed in the short run, it cleared a path to the current successful negotiations.

“A Rail Strike was never intended by Rail Labor leaders… never in the cards. Anyone with an appreciation of American Rail Labor History knows this.” This is according to Carey Dall, one of the founders of the BMWED rank-and-file caucus in his article “Rail Unions in the U.S. are in bad need of consolidation, democracy, and militancy.” He notes the years of preparation and strategizing needed to accomplish any successful strike which would “endangers interstate commerce.” None of the leaders of the 13 rail craft unions had lifted a finger to prepare for a strike in December. In fact, Dall in some ways places more blame on Rail Labor leadership than on Biden – let alone members of Congress.

There were some rail workers who expressed support for going on strike. But even some militant leaders of rank-and-file rail workers’ caucuses expected that the tentative agreement would be imposed by Congress. Since no strike was envisaged or prepared, the legislative route to winning paid sick leave, a gamble that could have been better executed in practice, seemed the only alternative. It should have been made possible for legislative champions of the rail workers to vote against the imposed contract as a whole after voting for the sick leave amendment. But Speaker Pelosi out-maneuvered the union lobbyists.

Senator Bernie Sanders and Representatives Bowman, Bush and AOC, plus other members of the Squad and Progressive Caucus, continued to put pressure on the Biden Administration through public statements and organizing a public letter to Biden in support of the demands of rail workers signed by 70 Senators and Representatives.

I sent a letter today with more than 70 of my colleagues in the House and the Senate urging President Biden to do everything within his power to guarantee rail workers the seven paid sick days that they desperately need. pic.twitter.com/gd4d7nqO7s

— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) December 9, 2022

Progress For Rail Workers in 2023

The freight rail corporations, which had appeared triumphant at the end of 2022 after successfully using the blackmail threat that a rail strike would cripple the U.S. economy, then faced blowback from the negative consequences of their political victories in Congress.

Also the lobbying efforts by railroad workers earned lots of press coverage and sympathy. That has helped put pressure on rail corporations. The catastrophe in East Palestine, Ohio also put pressure on rail corporations to make safety improvements.

Most of these agreements provided for four new paid annual sick days, with an option of converting three personal days into unscheduled paid sick leave. In general, the agreements cover non-operating personnel rather than locomotive engineers, where negotiations with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLET-IBT) continued until May 29, when the BLET reached a tentative agreement including work schedule changes still subject to ratification by the members.

The best roundup is by veteran labor reporter Steven Greenhouse in The Guardian: US rail companies grant paid sick days after public pressure in win for unions (msn.com)

An updated recent story appeared in the Associated Press: Norfolk Southern is 1st railroad to give all workers sick time as others negotiate with unions | AP News 

Norfolk Southern will have to pay out at least half a billion dollars for their disaster. But insurance coverage and tax breaks will limit the impact on Norfolk Southern’s bottom-line profits. 

A more significant threat to the excessive profits of the entire rail freight industry is posed by legislative action at the federal and state level to require at least two person crews on freight trains. 

Kansas just joined eight other states in announcing that it would do so for trains passing through its territory: Kansas will regulate railroad crew size under Kelly proposal | The Kansas City Star

The Pennsylvania State House also just passed a bipartisan bill to regulate freight railroads: Pennsylvania House passes rail regulation bill – Trains

State-by-state legislation poses at best a minor nuisance to the industry. The current SCOTUS would probably overturn state rail safety laws, but it demonstrates that the federal Railway Safety Act as proposed by the Democratic and Republican Senators from Ohio could be enacted: Senate panel OKs rail-safety bill as railroad vows to help homeowners affected by Ohio derailment (msn.com)

The current profit model of the major rail corporations is highly dependent on reducing labor costs by cutting staffing to the bone, and super-exploiting a dwindling workforce. Since the end of the last contract cycle in November 2018 some 40,000 rail jobs have been eliminated, without any technological changes to justify the cuts. As RWU co-chairman Ross Grooters, a lifetime member of DSA, was quoted in 2022, “The job is really just becoming fewer people doing more work faster.”   

As predicted by rank-and-file rail worker reformers in 2022, following the imposed settlement that did not address the underlying causes of worker anger at Precision Scheduled Railroading and other schemes to cut the rail work force to the bone, large numbers of rail workers took the large bonuses and back pay settlements under the agreement, and quit their increasingly stressful jobs.  

To deter some workers from quitting and to recruit replacements, the rail corporations have a self-interest in providing somewhat less onerous working conditions. Bargaining over paid sick leave, which alleviates some of the stresses on rail workers, but does not touch the core issues of scheduling and adequate staffing, in fact happened because the rail corporation management were themselves beginning to do it unilaterally.  

Railroad Unions Still Fragmented

Bureaucratic rail union leaders are quick to claim credit, complacent that no fundamental union restructuring or reforms are required of them. But these wins are not thanks to better bargaining skills by union leaders. The unions are still bargaining fragmented agreements in an uncoordinated way as they have in the past.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” said Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, the main US labor federation. “This is being done the right way. Each railroad is negotiating with each of its individual unions on this.”

Greg Regan is technically correct that under current law and union structures, there is no alternative for the rail unions that now are bargaining from a position of fragmentation and structural weakness.  13 small craft unions are powerless against big corporate management. Real and lasting progress for rail workers will come only from a major restructuring of the rail unions into a single union, together with the mobilization of a unified and democratic rail workers’ movement.  Rank-and-file reformers are advocating for one big Railway Workers Union, as imagined by Eugene Debs in the 1890s.

Resistance to the negative consequences of super-exploitative rail capitalism for rank-and-file rail workers has been coordinated by two rank-and-file rail reform caucuses, Railroad Workers United (RWU) and the BMWED Rail & File Caucus. These caucuses have developed in different historical ways strategically, and use differing tactics, but taken together have already made a major positive impact for rail workers. I described these two caucuses more fully in an article in Democratic Left posted on the DSA website. 

Both caucuses are contributing to help shape a better future for rail workers and their unions.

The BMWED Rank and File Caucus stems from an internal organizing effort within the Brotherhood of Maintenance Way Employees – part of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT).  The internal organizing campaign was headed by Carey Dall, an organizer hired from the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union). Over several years, utilizing as many as twelve internal organizers at a cost of over $10 million, the BMWED slowly increased its capacity to mobilize rank-and-file members.  In 2016 the union was capable of staging a coordinated National Day of Demonstrations.  However, the financial costs of the campaign became too much for the small union to bear alone, and the campaign ended with Carey Dall’s departure back to the ILWU.  The BMWED Rank & File Caucus, now aligned with other Teamsters reform caucuses, is insisting that rail workers need a unified and democratic industrial union to be effective: Fighting isn’t easy, but united we can win. (bmwepower.com)

An energized network of 26 state legislative coordinators from the BMWED rank-and-files, led by Deven Mantz of North Dakota, visited Congressional offices in November 2022, to lobby for paid sick leave.  They gained the enthusiastic support of Representatives Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush and AOC for including paid sick leave in the tentative agreement that would end the current round of negotiations.  After Speaker Pelosi refused to include that sick leave provision in the agreement and insisted on separating the votes, the House passed both the sick leave amendment and the imposition of the Rail Labor Act.

Although the legislative team focused on lobbying Republican Senators from their home states to support legislation introduced by Bernie Sanders that would amend the tentative agreement to include seven paid sick leave days, several Republicans who had promised to vote for paid sick leave reneged under pressure from business lobbyists.  The Sanders amendment passed the Senate., but without the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

Yielding to pressures from the four major freight railroad corporations, on December 2nd President Biden signed his approval of a tentative agreement that did not address the essential demands of rail workers for proper scheduling and staffing, safety requirements and adequate paid time off.

Later that day Biden flew to Boston to sip tea with Prince William, only to be met by a protest of some 200 persons hastily organized by local members of the Railroad Workers United, by the Boston DSA labor working group, and others.  The rally noisily called out Biden as a SCAB, was well covered by the Boston Globe and local news media, got national attention, and led to editorials in the Boston Globe and other news media calling for paid sick leave for railroad workers.  A week later, a smaller rally in Worcester brought out members of Worcester DSA and a larger presence of rank-and-file rail workers. An article by Henry de Groot in Working Mass captures these actions, which remain among the largest protest actions in support of rail workers to date.  

Solidarity From DSA and Others for Bigger Changes for Rail Workers

This setback for the rail workers did not end the struggle for paid sick leave days for rail workers. Both the BMWED Rank and File Caucus and Railroad Workers United [RWU] made use of the public outcry against the unwillingness of the freight rail industry to keep agitating for paid sick leave as one measure to address the concerns of rail workers. The RWU, with an executive board and organizers made up entirely of rank-and-file rail workers from several different unions, expanded its already vigorous presence in a variety of media, including numerous interviews with organizer Ron Kaminkow and Executive Board Co-chair Ross Grooters.  The RWU also organizes an excellent weekly email mailing that includes news, editorials and excerpts from all sorts of articles including mainstream and industry publications. The RWU is committed to organizing regional solidarity chapters open to DSA members and other supporters along with rail workers.

As part of its agitational campaign, the RWU is pushing for nationalization of the freight rail industry. This campaign has been endorsed by the UE (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America) and by DSA Labor. The national DSA Labor Commission and its various organizing committees (EWOC, Labor Corps, etc.) have sponsored numerous group discussions and webinars that include rail worker issues, attended regularly by Ross Grooters, Ron Kaminkow, Deven Mantz, Carey Dall, Matt Weaver and other rank-and-file rail workers.

This growing relationship, begun just several months ago, seems to be a useful experience both for the rank-and-file rail workers and for DSA. It is an important part of DSA’s commitment to joining and supporting broad working-class struggles from Starbucks and Amazon through the UAW and other academic workers’ unions, teachers and nurses. DSA Labor Commission has been prioritizing the UPS campaign, the success or failure of which will set a tone for all worker organizing in the USA, including that in logistical industries like freight rail.  

Building a militant, broad, environmentally conscious, and inclusive working-class movement in the USA makes every other goal of democratic socialism more possible. The DSA Convention will be debating a consensus resolution put forward by the National Labor Commission to make this a top priority for DSA as a whole.  Likely friendly amendments include ongoing support for nationalizing the rails and to support the rail rank-and-file caucuses’ demand for the creation of a big industrial union.

When we have a big industrial union we will have the power to improve everyone’s lives. This is especially clear when it comes to rail road workers: if we had nationalized rails and good working conditions we could prevent catastrophes like the train wreck in East Palestine. We would also rely on cars less and help prevent the worst of the climate crisis. If we combine the values of democratic socialism with the power of a big industrial union we could accomplish almost anything.

Paul Garver (he/him) worked as a union organizer in the USA for SEIU from 1974 to 1990, and organized and coordinated unions at the global level for the International Union of Food Workers (IUF) from 1990 to 2006. After formally retiring, he has continued this work through DSA, through the International Committee and as its liaison to the National Labor Committee. He is one of the founding members of DSA.

Eli Gerzon (they/them) is the managing editor at Working Mass. They are active members of Boston DSA and Jewish Voice for Peace – Boston. Gerzon got their start in political organizing as part of the climate movement helping start and lead statewide campaigns in Massachusetts.