Biden claims the Rail Strike Crisis Has Been Averted— Unions Disagree

By Jack Conlon— Correspondent

President Biden has averted a US rail strike that would cause untold damage to the economy— but many railway workers believe that the fight is still ongoing.

Healthcare concerns are another hot topic that concerns railway workers. Workers have reportedly been fired for scheduling routine doctors’ appointments and are getting no sick days off. These harsh attendance rules paired with the workforce decrease has caused railway workers to begin to demand better treatment.

The railway workforce has decreased by 30% in the last 6 years— squeezing workers and forcing them to take on more hours and harder labor for the same wage as before. Jonah Furman, writer of “Labor Notes,” a union advocacy group and newsletter, says that laborers are chained to their work. “You have generations of workers being tied to this job, working long hours, and basically have no time off,” he said. 

Dennis Pierce, the president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), says that workers have a right to enjoy what they’ve worked for. “Life isn’t planned, medical events aren’t planned. People need to be allowed to enjoy the fruits of their labor instead of just having to be at work every day,” he said. 

A railway strike would have devastating repercussions in almost every single industry. The US would lose around $2 billion a day if a strike were to ensue. Resource supply would be essentially cut off, leaving manufacturers scrambling to find what they need to make their products. 

Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina says that the strike would be catastrophic. “A rail worker strike would be catastrophic for America’s transportation system and our already-stressed supply chain,” he said. 

President Biden appointed a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to negotiate terms with the railway unions back in July. The agreement they produced has vague language and largely leaves out all of the quality-of-life concerns that railway workers have. This includes those related to the healthcare situation. 

The tentative deal appealed to three Machinist-affiliated unions who represent around 58,000 railway workers, who accepted the PEB’s recommendations. But two major unions, representing around 57,000 workers, are outraged by the deal and refuse to accept until the sick day issue is addressed.

A joint statement from SMART-TD and BLET, the two unions who have yet to accept the PEB’s recommendations, came out on September 11th, stating that the PEB recommendation is not yet substantial enough to accept. “No working-class American should be treated with that level of harassment in the workplace for simply becoming ill or going to a routine medical visit. Sadly, the Presidential Emergency Board recommendation got it wrong on this issue,” they continued, “these policies are destroying the lives of our members, who are the backbone of the railroad industry,” they said.

Meanwhile, President Biden says that the agreement was a success. “This is a win for tens of thousands of workers and for the dignity of their work,” he continues, “They earned and deserve these benefits, and this is a great deal for both sides,” said Biden.

The threat of a strike has not been averted. As seen in the last rail strike back in 1992, it only takes one union to vote in favor of a strike and cause untold damage to the US economy. BLET and SMART-TD are still set to vote for a strike once they are able— almost half of the railway workers would join.

“It’s time for the federal government to tell the CEOs who are running the nation’s railroads into the ground that enough is enough. Congress should stay out of the rail dispute and tell the railroads to do what other business leaders do— sit down and bargain a contract that your employees will accept,” said SMART-TD and BLET in a joint statement. 

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