At President Biden’s request, Congress approved legislation directing the nation’s rail worker unions to accept a multi-year contract that rail management and labor negotiators agreed to last September, but was subsequently voted down by the rank-and-file members of four of the 12 unions involved.
The legislators pulled the nation back from the brink of a work stoppage that threatened to cripple the economy just weeks before Christmas.
However, the action also made the rail union workers visibly bitter about what they saw as a betrayal by President Biden and Democrat members of Congress, who normally could be counted on as natural allies of organized labor, which has provided votes and substantial financial support for Democrat campaigns over the years.
The immediate cause of the rail workers rejection of the contract were their employers’ attendance policies and refusal to give up more than one day of additional paid sick leave.
Those concerns arose from the pressure put on existing employees following years of layoffs that reduced their numbers to unsustainable levels. Those job cuts stemmed from extreme cost cutting that has created widespread serious service failures throughout the nation’s rail system.
“Passing legislation to adopt tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave for railroad workers will not address rail service issues,” said the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, a division of the Teamsters Union, and one of the four unions whose members voted down the agreement.
“Rather, it will worsen supply chain issues and further sicken, infuriate, and disenfranchise railroad workers as they continue shouldering the burdens of the railroads’ mismanagement.”
While they were appreciative of Congress taking action to avoid a strike, rail customers also were aware that the conditions that sparked the workers’ reaction are likely remain as bad.
“This legislation puts one major problem to rest, but we’re certainly not out of the woods yet when it comes to fixing the breakdown of the freight rail network,” pointed out Chris Jahn, president of the American Chemistry Council.
“To get to the heart of the matter and prevent the next crisis, Congress and the Surface Transportation Board must address the root causes of rail service problems that continue to put the brakes on U.S. manufacturing.”
Specifically, Jahn called on Congress and the STB to adopt long overdue regulatory reforms that he said will set clear service standards, track how well major railroads are performing for their customers, and provide greater access to competitive rail service through reciprocal switching (a practice where railroads are compelled to allow other railroads’ rolling stock to operate on their lines).
The National Association of Chemical Distributors President Eric R. Byer echoed those same concerns about ongoing rail service failures while hailing the swift congressional action that put an end to the strike threat.
“I raised the issue of sick time in an op-ed after hearing directly from NACD members about the challenges they have faced due to declining service in the rail industry brought on by reductions in the workforce,” he noted.
Byer added, “I continue to believe that freight rail service will continue to deteriorate until some wholesale changes take place in the industry, and NACD will continue to work with both parties in Congress as well as the executive branch and the rail industry to improve performance..”
Earlier this year, both Congress and the STB held hearings delving into the rail service crisis. But the situation has not gotten much better and enforcement actions and reporting requirements imposed by the STB have gone largely ignored by railroad management.