Once More, Railroad Workers are Taking the Lead for American LaborRoundup
tags: strikes, railroads, labor history
Nelson Lichtenstein is a research professor in history at UC Santa Barbara.
With just days left to cut a deal, the threat of strike by some 115,000 railroad workers has been averted — for now.
White House officials announced Thursday morning that they had reached a tentative deal between railroad workers and freight rail companies. The workers’ demands include sick days, and the new agreement reportedly enables them to take unpaid days for medical care without being punished, also granting a 24% wage increase over five years.
The unions still have to vote on the deal but have agreed not to strike during the next stage of the process, which may take weeks. Whether they greenlight the agreement — or decide later to strike — they’ve ramped up the momentum for labor movements nationwide.
The Biden administration has been desperate to avert a strike. A shutdown of the nation’s freight railway system could idle more than 7,000 trains, disrupting supply chains and costing the economy more than $2 billion a day. Amtrak and Metrolink had already planned to cancel some trains in the event of a work stoppage because it would clog tracks used by these passenger lines. Cabinet secretaries and senior administration officials, led by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, met with railway executives and leaders of the several unions threatening to strike.
The workers have been in a militant and strategic mood. In July, 99.5% of one rail union’s members voted to authorize a strike. The crucial issue has come down to punishing scheduling policies imposed by railroad management to compensate for the 45,000 workers — more than a quarter of the workforce — severed from the payroll over the last six years. Under these new work rules, conductors and engineers work “on call” for many days in a row, forced into irregular and unpredictable workweeks that wreak havoc with family life and necessary medical appointments.
The railroads label this “precision scheduled railroading,” but shippers of grain and chemicals, as well as the railroad workers, describe it as a recipe for gridlock and chaos. “The strike absolutely needs to happen,” a Union Pacific engineer told the American Prospect before the deal was struck. “This is not about money. This is about quality of life. This is about getting time off with your family.”