After two years of fruitless negotiations railroad contract talks remain at an impasse and will soon require President Biden to intervene by appointing a Presidential Emergency Board. The negotiations are currently being mediated by the National Mediation Board (NMB), which stated Tuesday that mediation had reached a dead end.
The contract talks involve approximately 140,000 railroad workers who are members of 13 rail unions. These unions have stated that they will not accept binding arbitration, which is normally the next step in the contract process, where both parties submit to the determination of a supposedly neutral federal third party. Workers are well aware that arbitration always finds in favor of the companies, so in the face of intense rank-and-file pressure the unions have felt compelled to reject this option.
Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department, couched the unions' argument for rejecting binding arbitration in the cloak of protecting members’ democratic rights, saying, “Because binding arbitration inherently means that rank and file union members will not have the option to vote on their contract—which is their constitutionally mandated right—rail labor will reject the offer of binding arbitration.”
“After three years of needless stalling from rail carriers, the National Mediation Board has found that a voluntary agreement is simply not possible,” said Arthur Maratea, Transportation Communications Union/International Association of Machinists national president. “We look forward to continuing to advocate forcefully for our membership in this new stage of negotiations.”
In a press release, The National Carriers' Conference Committee, which represents the railroads in the negotiations, expressed its disappointment with the breakdown of talks.
The unions had been calling for an end to mediation. But rather than call a strike and force the railroads to an acceptable agreement, the unions are looking forward to moving the negotiation process to the next step in the labyrinthine federal process aimed at blocking workers’ democratic right to strike by tying up negotiations in endless red tape. The next step is for President Biden to appoint the Presidential Emergency Board, which the unions see as a means shifting responsibility for imposing a pro-employer contract from their shoulders to the US government.
Regan said it is “unfortunate but not surprising” that mediation failed. “The railroads’ offer of a net pay cut and demand for health care concessions are wholly unacceptable,” declared. Dennis Pierce, the national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), told the Associated Press the companies had not offered any deal “remotely close to what their employees would consider ratifying.”
Once binding arbitration is rejected, the unions and the railroads will enter into a 30-day “cooling off” period mandated by the Railway Labor Act, during which time rail workers are forced to continue working under the inadequate pay and deplorable conditions that the contract negotiations are presumably supposed to remedy. It is during this time period that President Biden is expected to appoint the Presidential Emergency Board to work out a settlement.
If no recommendation is made or if the recommendation is rejected, Congress can intervene to legislate a solution, which can include more “cooling off” periods, the implementation of the Emergency Board's recommendations, or compulsory binding arbitration. In any case, intervention by any branch of the government would undoubtedly lead to a pro-corporate settlement.
Negotiations are stuck on several points. Railroads want to reduce on-board crew to just one conductor while having a ground-based team that serves multiple trains at once, thus reducing their payroll considerably. Railroad workers are demanding significant raises to keep up with ballooning inflation and years of net pay cuts under conditions where railroads have been reporting record profits. Railroad workers have also been working under much more demanding conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, poor cleaning and safety precautions, reduced crews, and harsh attendance policies such as BNSF's “ Hi-Viz ” policy that leaves little time for a life outside of work.
The struggle at the US railroads comes during a period of intensifying class struggle internationally. Workers at ports, airlines, construction sites, hospitals and schools are standing up to increased pressure on them to work harder/longer, risk their lives and take home less in order to pay for the ruling class’s Wall Street bailouts and war abroad.
President Biden declared on Wednesday that $1 billion more in weapons will be sent to Ukraine in yet another move that will increase the chances of all-out war with nuclear-armed Russia. This is the 12th such installment of weapons the US has sent to the Ukrainian government, including their fascist paramilitary forces such as the Azov Battalion.
Under these conditions the US government is not prepared to tolerate work stoppages that will further disrupt the supply chain, already in crisis due to the government’s disastrous pandemic policies, and will impose whatever measures are necessary to keep the trains moving.
On the other side, railroad workers and broader sections of the working class in the US and internationally are being pitched into a struggle against a capitalist system that has imposed untold suffering during a preventable pandemic, which is now metastasizing into global economic crisis amid a rising war danger. Workers are being asked to pay for the disastrous policies of the ruling class, which funneled trillions into the pockets of the world’s billionaires while allowing millions to die from COVID.
Workers aren't taking this lying down. The largest strike wave since the 1970s is unfolding. However, to successfully carry forward their struggle railroad workers must break free from the pro-company unions and form rank-and-file committees in their workplaces. These committees, controlled by workers themselves, will democratically discuss and decide demands that workers should fight for and map out a strategy to win.
These rank-and-file committees will take their place alongside other committees worldwide in the International Workers Alliance of Rank and File Committees (IWA-RFC) formed last year to coordinate workers’ struggles globally against the offensive by the employers. We urge railroad workers to contact the World Socialist Web Site. Tell us about conditions on your job. Help build a rank-and-file committee at your workplace.