What Would It Take For Rail Workers To Win?

Congress voted December 1 to impose a contract on 120,000 freight railroad workers and preempt the first national rail stoppage in 30 years. Photo: Jim Hamilton, CC BY 2.0.

On Thursday, Congress voted to impose a contract on 120,000 freight railroad workers and preempt the first national rail stoppage in 30 years. The move ends three years of negotiations, mediation, and federal intervention under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), the federal law that governs railroad workers.

In the final months of the process, rail workers voted down several tentative agreements, held informational pickets, and drew national attention to the issue of paid sick leave for railroad workers.

On Monday, the White House announced its intention to impose the tentative agreement brokered in September by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh on the workers. Through public pressure and legislative maneuvering, progressives forced a vote on paid sick days in the House, where it passed, only for the demand to lose in the Senate, with a 52-43 vote in favor failing to clear the 60-vote threshold.

Throughout the showdown, Railroad Workers United (RWU), a rank-and-file organization across all twelve rail unions, pushed for stronger agreements, no votes on bad contracts, and federal action on the side of the workers, rather than railroad companies.

Jonah Furman of Labor Notes spoke with Iowa locomotive engineer Ross Grooters, co-chair of Railroad Workers United, about the contract fight, the failures of rail union leadership, and how to build a rail labor movement that can win.

Labor Notes: What’s the situation now? What is the tentative agreement that is being imposed on workers?

Ross Grooters: I’d argue what Congress is doing now is kind of an unfair labor practice. Why would the carriers negotiate if Congress is imposing a deal? Congress has acted very prematurely here.

The tentative agreement (TA) originally came out of a Biden administration Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) that issued its recommendations back in August. Out of that, to avert a rail strike in September, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and others acted as intermediaries to bring the railroads and the rail unions together to broker some additions to that PEB package, to try to get a little frill around the edges. I wouldn’t even call it a bow on the package—it really fell short of where railroad workers’ needs are with what we’re going through.

So that tentative agreement was put out to membership. Eight unions approved it (some after multiple attempts), and four, who represent over 55 percent of rail labor, rejected it. And those votes were occurring in a situation where a lot of people were resigned to the TA because Congress can do exactly what they’re doing now. A lot of people felt strong-armed by the process, by pundits and politicians, and felt that there wasn’t a chance to do better.

The Walsh-brokered tentative agreement also added self-sustaining pools to the deal. Can you explain that?

The self-sustaining pools are a change in operations by the railroads to make the reduced staffing they’ve adopted through “Precision Scheduled Railroading” fit the contractual agreement. Because right now, they’re violating our national agreements every day to make the railroads operate.

A self-sustaining pool will further speed up the work-rest cycle to get workers back to work quicker. So instead of being on a [schedule] where you have multiple people in front of you and you know that you’re, say, the tenth person on that roster to be called and you know that tenth train will come sometime tomorrow — which is still very unpredictable — now all of a sudden, you can get called out of the blue to go to work fifteen minutes from now because they need somebody to fill a train.

How did the union leadership handle the TA?

If you looked around and saw what rail labor leadership was doing, it would sort of reaffirm the viewpoint that there was nothing further possible. Union leadership was slow to roll out the details of the agreement to membership, and, frankly, tried to play both sides of the fence, and say, “Well, I’m not going to tell you how to vote” while simultaneously trying to soft-sell the contract and talk about how good it was.

Also, various unions set different dates for their tentative agreement votes and cooling-off periods. It wasn’t like rail labor was trying to move a similar or the same contract all at once.

What do you think of the assessment that the rail unions banked on a favorable deal from the Democratic Party, and when that didn’t materialize, they didn’t have a Plan B?

I’m not clear on that, I guess. Part of the problem is I’m not part of those conversations. What I saw was the lack of communication throughout the three years that we haven’t had a contract.

Even the TA timeline: we didn’t see a lot of the information initially. When we did, it came out very top-down. Some people saw the contract, some people did not, and largely it depended on how connected a worker was [with leadership]. The companies have refused to negotiate for three years, and now we’re expected to basically vote blind.

What do railroad workers think of the decision of progressives in Congress to vote to impose the tentative agreement as part of a deal to get a vote on the paid sick days?

Your average railroader is not paying attention to that. Your average railroader knew that this was probably going to be imposed by Congress. For them, I think, there are arguments about whether it’s enough. But the seven paid sick days is probably what’s being paid attention to the most.

That’s a win. That took a lot of work from the same progressives who are coming under fire—people like Jamaal Bowman, who really stood up and were advocates for including the paid sick time. I think they need to be commended for that action. That was not easy to do, especially in the face of your president, your party leader essentially, saying “Nah, railroad workers don’t deserve anything more.” They’ve stuck their necks out for railroad workers, and I think they deserve praise for that.

I understand the frustration. But my frustration is not with the politicians who voted to implement this thing, it’s with the process itself. I don’t blame [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], for instance, for voting yes for [implementation in order to get the vote on paid sick days]. I understand the strong feelings about it because I don’t disagree—it is strike breaking, and it is an unfair labor practice, but that is the process; we sort of knew that going in.

This wasn’t a surprise for railroad workers. There’s not animosity about that vote occurring. It was sort of a foregone conclusion.



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The next round of rail negotiations starts in 2025. What will the unions and rail workers need to do to win next time?

This is what we really need to ask ourselves. If we want to win, we’re going to have to change the way we’re going about things.

I’d point to Sara Nelson and the Association of Flight Attendants, which has found ways to work within the RLA to put pressure on their employers to bargain. Instead of declaring a nationwide strike, the flight attendants have figured out that they even under the RLA they can have rolling strikes that are unpredictable. [See the AFA CHAOS site for more details.]So say today they strike in Atlanta, Georgia, and shut down that airport, and it causes disruptions across the system: flights are canceled, et cetera. It’s a short window, it might be a day, it might be eight hours. They do this over a series of dates, and it puts pressure on the airlines to negotiate.

Something like that could be tried with the railroads. Whether it would have the same effect remains to be seen. The railroads might react very differently from the airline industry. But it’s definitely something that could be attempted.

This is the root of where we’re at today. A lot of this takes organizing membership. It takes having conversations and getting membership activated to be involved in the process. That’s step one. It wasn’t even until this year that these contract negotiations were on railroad workers’ radar, really. The last two years without a contract, things had been quiet. And that’s because there’s a disconnect between leadership and membership.

Leveraging the power of the rank and file to do things like informational pickets, getting stories out there—all that work that could put pressure on the bosses wasn’t done. For whatever reason, rail labor has removed that from the process.

One of the things this round of bargaining has exposed is that rail workers don’t have the job that people thought they did. We have OK jobs. But at one time they were good jobs because we can shut down the economy. Because we’re so critical to the nation’s infrastructure and freight infrastructure. And that’s gone, that’s been pulled away.

So it’s only recently that people have started to learn how difficult rail workers’ jobs are, how difficult the scheduling demands are, the unknowns of when you’ll be able to go to work, and the conditions that we kind of accepted because we had decent benefits or had the ability to self-manage when we had more staffing.

It is only within the last five years, under precision scheduled railroading, that that’s really been ratcheted down, and the vises have been squeezed on working people. I’d argue that even since the first step of the RLA negotiating process, three years ago, that the conditions of work have changed so much that the contract we’re negotiating today doesn’t fit the conditions of three years ago. That’s how rapidly things have changed on the railroads.

Railroad Workers United has spoken out about this contract. Repeatedly, we’ve been attacked by union leadership. Much of the time the attacks are that we’re sharing misinformation or incorrect information. I’ve read the contract. I feel like I’m pretty good at reading contracts and interpreting them. I think that’s really the only thing they can say, because the facts aren’t on their side.

And the way leadership tried to roll this contract out, it ignored the negative things that we’re bringing up. Because membership knowing, for instance, that we’ve negotiated away health care increases in future contract raises would make them vote against the contract.

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes (BMWE) smartly invested in internal organizing a few years ago. They were some of the first crafts to face work being contracted out—and realizing this, they started to try to activate their membership. They tried to reach out across crafts and build contract coalitions to do informational picketing and work together as different craft unions.

Because of that, you now have a BMWE rank-and-file caucus, and you saw the results in the contract vote: BMWE membership rejected it pretty soundly. I’m sure rail labor leadership is not going to like this, but the sick leave proposal did not come from them — that came from rank-and-file members.

Rail labor is not organized. We’re not where we need to be. And membership isn’t active enough for us to win the kinds of things we want to win in future contracts. We’ve got to make that happen.

What’s going to happen now?

Railroad workers are going to get a contract, especially in the operating crafts [i.e. conductors and engineers], that will lead to further workforce reduction. We have a lot of workers who are approaching 20 years in the industry. At 20 years, depending on your age, you may be eligible for retirement. You may be eligible for disability; railroad workers have a lot of health issues due to the way we’re worked and the lifestyle.

And you have a lot of older workers who are ready for retirement, who are just holding on to get the back pay, the bonuses. They know the terms of this contract are going to continue to lead to workforce reduction. It is not going to resolve the root issue of inadequate staffing, to make our workplace safer and healthier and more sustainable.

This contract helps the railroads turn this into a revolving door job instead of a career. And in two years we go right back to the negotiating table.

In my mind, the work that we’re doing now shouldn’t stop. That’s what I’d impress upon railroad workers and our allies that have seen this moment and been activated. People who are frustrated with the Progressive Caucus—try to keep this on the front burner and organize with us. Keep pressure on the carriers; this thing isn’t going away. The problems we have are going to continue, and it’s going to continue to jeopardize the supply chain and the economy.

Railroads are not being operated to move freight, they are being operated as a bank to extract wealth. To correct that, we need to operate railroads like public infrastructure—like the necessary piece of our economy that they are. This is something that RWU has pushed: public ownership. It’s a way for us to go on the offensive, to start pushing that there is another way to do this that doesn’t have as great a negative effect on workers.

That’s my biggest message. Within the last couple months, we’ve built a network of people who are looking to RWU for guidance in this process. That could be being done by our rail unions, and they could be pushing some very big demands for the whole working class. It’s not just railroad workers who need predictable scheduling, who need time off the job — all workplaces need that.

Turning that from a railroad struggle into a broader class struggle is my kind of vision.

Originally published in Jacobin.