At labor rally in D.C., rail workers and progressive allies vow to push Biden on sick days

Bernie Sanders, Rashida Tlaib and many union leaders join rail workers in protest over enforced contract

Published December 18, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., addresses rail union workers at a rally near the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 13, 2022. (Bob Hennelly)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., addresses rail union workers at a rally near the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 13, 2022. (Bob Hennelly)

This article originally appeared at InsiderNJ, in slightly different form. Used by permission.

While the congressional imposition of an unpopular rail contract on the nation's 115,000 workers who lacked paid sick time, in order to prevent a strike, may have faded from the headlines, a series of high-energy union rallies across the country on Dec. 13 are adding pressure on President Biden to issue an executive order mandating paid sick days for rail workers.

At the same time, in an additional sign of increasing militancy within the rank and file of the rail industry, a longtime president of the 28,000-member Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, who pushed for the controversial deal, was just voted out of office.

The rank and file of eight rail unions voted for the deal, with four, including one of the larger units, rejecting it, in large part over the issue of paid sick days. Despite a 24 percent pay raise, many the workers rejected the contract because of the lack of sick time for a workforce that's on call 24/7.

Earlier this month Congress went along with prohibiting rail workers from striking, but a bipartisan majority in both the House and the Senate voted for a second piece of legislation that would have mandated rail carriers provide seven days sick leave. But the 52-43 tally in the Senate fell short of the 60-vote threshold required for passage.

Not since 1992, when President George H.W. Bush invoked the 1926 Railway Labor Act, has Congress voted to prohibit rail workers from striking. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware was among a handful of pro-labor senators who voted against that move.

After speaking at the Dec. 13 railroad union rally on Capitol Hill, Rep. Donald Payne Jr., a Democrat who represents New Jersey's 10th congressional district, said he remained "optimistic about the prospects" for an executive order. Payne, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Rail, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, led the floor debate for both imposing the unpopular pact and a second measure to mandate that workers get the paid sick leave the rail carriers had successfully resisted.

At the rally Payne told railroad workers and their supporters that "the fight is just beginning" for them to have "the right to have what every American should have — what my staff has, what I have, what every Republican [member of Congress] has — sick time. It's the American thing to do."

At last week's boisterous midday rally, scores of rail workers and their supporters, mostly from the mid-Atlantic region, cheered speakers like Brian Renfrow, the recently elected president of the National Letter Carriers.

Bernie Sanders: "What you have shown the country is how outrageous this level of corporate greed is and how we have it in the rail industry and in other industries across the country."

"Three hundred thousand members of my union stand with you," Renfrow told the cheering crowd. "Just like letter carriers, rail workers are essential workers. Throughout the pandemic, just like you, we came to work every day to keep our country moving. My members work long hours in extreme conditions: rain, snow, extreme temperatures. You do the same. Since 2015 the seven largest railroads have had record profits totaling near $150 billion and in that same time frame, since 2015, these same companies have cut tens of thousands of jobs."

Renfrow continued: "You should not be forced to work when you are sick. You should not have to choose between taking care of yourself and your family and keeping your job. Federal workers, including members of Congress, have sick leave and you should too."

"What you have shown the country is how outrageous this level of corporate greed is and how we have it in the rail industry and in other industries across the country," said Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. "You have raised consciousness on this issue, because you guys are not the only ones in that position. We are going to continue the fight to guarantee paid family and medical leave for all workers in America."

Sanders called out the relatively recent role of Wall Street investors in the deterioration of working conditions in the rail sector, including the use of so-called precision schedule railroading which penalizes workers, including termination, for taking time off for any reason.

"They walked into the industry a number of years ago and said, 'Hey, you are too nice to your workers. Tighten up — cut, cut and cut,' and in the last six years we have seen a 30 percent reduction in the workforce," Sanders said. "You guys have to do more with less support and that is their ideology: How do we work people to the bone so we can make $20 billion a year? That is why we have to put an end to precision schedule railroading."

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Union officials described how the nation's rail industry had gone from close to 50 Class 1 railroads in the 1980s down to just seven with the monopoly power associated with the 19th-century robber barons. Several protest signs demanded that federal regulators protect the current two-person crews required for freight trains that can be five miles long, boosting the carriers' cost-profit ratio. Unions maintain it's just a matter of basic public safety for the communities through which they run.

"What does that train do to the communities it goes through?" bellowed one union speaker. "It blocks the crossings forever. It literally severs communities and the neighborhoods — and we know that the trains do not operate safely everyday. That's why we need that second person on the train who can make that cut [of the freight cars] at the crossing so the local people can get through. That's the conductor, the very same person they are trying to take off the train."

Backers of swift executive action by the president point to what public health officials describe as the triple threat of surges in COVID, the flu as well as in pediatric respiratory virus cases in children. Throughout the pandemic the transport, food processing and health care workforces were hit hard by COVID, which claimed 1.1 million Americans, including a still unknown number of front-line essential workers, particularly before the widespread availability of vaccines.

On Dec. 9, Payne was one of 73 members of Congress who wrote Biden asking for him to take executive action. Two of Biden's former Democratic opponents, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, also signed on.

In addition to Payne, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey signed on. Labor appeared to get more traction from New York's delegation with signatures from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Reps. Yvette Clark, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman, Adriano Espaillat, Mondaire Jones, Ritchie Torres, Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney.

"We have heard terrible and tragic stories from rail workers who have been penalized for spending the day in the hospital with their sick children," the congressional letter recounted. "A locomotive engineer, who, out of fear of being fired, was forced to skip his doctor's appointment after experiencing unusual symptoms, suffered a heart attack and died in an engine room just weeks later. There is absolutely no reason why these workers should have to deal with these conditions in the richest country in the history of the world."

The members of Congress observed that while President Obama signed an executive order in 2015 establishing paid sick leave for federal contractors, it "ultimately did not cover rail carriers despite the fact that the Federal Government has hundreds of contracts with freight rail carriers. You can and you must expand this executive order."

Moreover, the letter argued that "the Secretary of Labor has the authority under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to set mandatory occupational safety and health standards for businesses affecting interstate commerce. We can think of few things that threaten the safety and health of workers more than being required to come into work sick and exhausted and we can think of few industries more quintessential to interstate commerce than freight rail."

Under the Federal Railroad Safety Act, the letter concluded, the secretary of transportation "has a duty to promote safety in all areas of railroad operations, to reduce railroad-related accidents, and to reduce deaths, injuries and damages caused by rail carriers. Guaranteeing that workers are not operating trains or inspecting rail signals while sick or tired would fundamentally improve the safety of our national rail operations."

"We say we are for people's right to organize and fight back," said Rep. Rashida Tlaib, "yet we are not letting them use the leverage to say, 'We are not going to show up until they get what we need.'"

In an interview after he spoke at the Capitol Hill rally, Rep. Bowman said he found it "incredibly frustrating" that even within his own party "we have too many conversations about private interests — commercialization and the measuring of the health of our country only through our economy without taking care of the workers — without providing a prevailing wage, without providing affordable housing, without providing sick leave."

Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, one of a handful of House members to vote against the imposition of the contract, told the crowd that withholding their labor to protest things like unsafe conditions was a fundamental human right.

"We say we are for people's right to organize and fight back, yet at the same time we are not letting them use the leverage to say they are not going to show up until they get what we need," Tlaib told InsiderNJ in an interview. "Federal workers, rail workers, everybody should be able to say, 'Hey, you have had too many cases of COVID or instances where we needed paid leave.' At that point you should be able to just step away and say we are not going to show up to work until you handle it."

Tlaib recalled that early in the pandemic she and other members of the Michigan delegation were inundated by requests for N-95 masks from the TSA workers at Detroit Metro Airport. "They just weren't giving people masks," she said, "and we were trying to hunt them down like everybody else because they just were not providing them even though the airport was a huge hot spot for the spread of the pandemic. Yet management seemed to have them." 

The Capitol Hill labor rally even draw two House Republicans who voted with their Democratic colleagues to compel the railroads to provide the seven paid sick days. On the way back up Capitol Hill for a vote, Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania shared their rationale with InsiderNJ.

Bacon said his grandfather was a railroader with the Illinois Central and that he and Fitzpatrick were pragmatists.

He said he tried to make the unions' case to his party's caucus. "I did talk to them, and I said some of these people have worked 20 days straight and the next day, they are on call. People want quality of life and not just pay. That's the case I make. Theodore Roosevelt was a strong labor guy. H,e said everybody should get a square deal to include the workers and I think that is where Republicans should be instead of being stilted one way or the other."

"It's not just the physical health impact of having sick days," said Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor. "it's the psychological and emotional health, the mental health issue that COVID has brought on. It's the second wave of the healthcare crisis and sick time can be used for that too."

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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