U.S. Railway Workers Resistance to Legislated Contracts

Railway workers actions

U.S. Railway Workers Resistance to Legislated Contracts

On December 13, U.S. railroad workers and supporters rallied on Capitol Hill, at the state legislatures in Ohio and Iowa, and in Minnesota, Michigan and Nevada and six other U.S. states in defence of their rights and public safety and to oppose imposed contracts on railway workers. 

Demonstrations also took place at various rail hubs like Baltimore and New York City on December 7. Speakers at these actions denounced Biden and Congress for imposing a contract voted down by the majority of workers and blocking their right to collectively bargain and strike, planned for December 9.

President Biden used the Railway Labor Act in September to impose a tentative agreement onto all railway workers after workers voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action over the summer. The tentative agreement dismissed the main demands for safe working conditions, including humane scheduling, time off, increased staffing and sick days. The agreement, at Biden’s urging, was “recommended” by the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) he had established by executive order in July. He then intervened to ensure it was imposed in September.

Then, as three of the largest of twelve unions voted the tentative agreement down and a majority of all railway workers did so, Biden intervened again as a strike deadline of December 9 drew near. He also did so after a coalition of more than 400 groups representing private interests — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and associations of the railroad and agricultural oligopolies — sent a letter to Congress on November 28 calling for immediate action to prevent a railroad strike. Biden and the media also engaged in widespread fearmongering, proclaiming that a strike would be a “catastrophe.”

Biden demanded that Congress impose the rejected contract and block any strike action even before it occurred. By November 30, the House passed a joint resolution that imposed the contract despite the broad opposition by railway workers. The vote was 290-137. In a separate bill, it called for seven paid sick days. This was done to give an appearance of concern for the workers, while knowing it would not pass in the Senate. A serious effort would have included the sick days in the joint resolution.

On December 1, the Senate passed the same joint resolution as the House, 80-15, meaning it could go directly to Biden to sign. The amendment for the sick days was not brought to the floor for a vote as the 60 votes needed for that in Senate rules was blocked, 52-43. On December 2, President Biden signed the bill imposing a collective agreement rejected by most of the 115,000 freight railway workers and blocking strike action.

At Biden’s insistence, the contract was included right in the legislation, in the name of protecting “the national interest,” including “national health and defense.” The law states that “the most recent tentative agreements, side letters, and local carrier agreements entered into by the covered parties that have not been ratified” — thus targeting the resistance — “shall be binding.”