The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

US House Passes Bill Forcing Railway Workers Not to Strike

Update: as expected, the Senate did not pass increased sick days. The House broke it out to say that they had included it, while making sure it wouldn’t be passed and the blame would be on the Senate. BUT if the main bill had included 7 days, it might have passed, since if the Senate voted it down, a strike would still be legally possible.

The bill makes them take a deal they had rejected before. Of particular note is that the bill gives them one sick day a year. Democrats voting against were:

Chu-CA, DeSaulnier-CA, Golden-ME, Norcross-NJ, Peltola-AK, Pocan-WI, Tlaib-MI & Torres-CA.

I note that AOC did not vote against it. I was initially hopeful, but I think it’s now undeniable that she’s performatively left-wing only; she cannot be counted on.

The House then passed a separate bill which would give the railway workers seven sick days and Democratic defenders are claiming this makes it all good.

But if the House had the votes to pass the second bill, they could have included it in the initial bill. It was clearly done so that the union was forced to send their members back to work: They are sure the “force back” bill will pass the Senate, but not if it includes sick days, but want to say they voted for sick days.

Recently in Ontario, the government passed a bill which forbade education workers (non-teachers) to strike. It included a $4k fine a day for each striker, and $50k a day for the union. The union struck anyway; other unions stated they would strike as well, and the bill was rescinded.

In the US, general strikes are illegal, made so in the 50s by Taft-Hartley (which also made it so that supervisors can’t join unions — a huge problem).

If a law is unjust, you must break the law. To be successful, you must do it en-masse. I know it won’t happen soon, but US unions need to buckle down and do a wide strike, with the goal of repealing Taft-Hartley and making “back to work” bills illegal. Without that, the right to join unions and their right to call strikes means little.

I do see some hope. I wasn’t sure if Ontario unions would have the guts to do the right thing, but they saw an existential threat, and they acted with solidarity. In the US, the ongoing Amazon and Starbucks unionization efforts are very hopeful because the people doing it are tough — in the face of repeated firings and closures they have simply continued.

People’s backs are to the wall. Since about 1980, the predominant policy in the US has been to immiserate workers, especially wage workers. This was possible because the New Deal and post-war eras had made workers well enough off that they had some surplus which could then be stolen from them.

But now a lot of people are up against the wall. Many full-time workers, especially at places like Amazon, live in their cars or tents, for example. There is nothing left to give.

People with nothing to lose are dangerous.

One of the reasons, I think, that the Ontario government lost is that they chose the wrong union to intimidate. Custodial staff and low-ranked clerical workers don’t have anything: 4K a day isn’t so frightening to them. Most of them don’t have homes or any real assets. If they’d tried this tactic with the teachers, who do still have fat and meat to trim off the bones, the teachers might have been too scared.

The custodial staff? No. They didn’t even hesitate.

Backs to the wall. If the US labor movement wishes to survive and become strong again, they need to recognize how bad a shape they, and most of those they represent, are in.



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  1. anon

    AOC needs to be thrown in the dumpster along with her hideous Eat the Rich dress. I’ve known for years that AOC is nothing but a performative, woke Twitter celebrity. She only cares about securing her cushy seat on the Hill for decades to come, doing nothing but enriching herself like her mama bear Nancy Pelosi. At least Tlaib voted against this bill. The rest of the Squad needs to be thrown out.

  2. Ché Pasa

    Welp, the reality is that no one in Congress can be counted on. That’s been the case since the first Congress lo these many years ago, and it’s still the case.

    This Railroad Strike Prevention Act is one of those things that Our Congress feels must be done on behalf of The Economy — which is pretty much all they can see or recognize anymore.

    The Economy can’t afford a further transportation disruption, especially not before the all-important Christmas Buying Season. If our congresscritters were worth anything, they’d impose terms on the Railroad Barons that would make them scream and satisfy the demands of the Union, but of course they won’t do that. Perish the thought.

    What to do? Strike anyway? Mmmm, maybe.

    Sometimes violating rules and norms is necessary, no?

  3. StewartM

    Some background information: why do the railroad companies hate sick leave so much?

    Once again, it all goes back to Wall Street telling rail companies how they must run their operations.

    “ll of which invites the question: Why do these rail barons hate paid leave so much? Why would a company have no problem handing out 24 percent raises, $1,000 bonuses, and caps on health-care premiums but draw the line on providing a benefit as standard and ubiquitous throughout modern industry as paid sick days?

    The answer, in short, is “P.S.R.” — or precision-scheduled railroading.

    P.S.R. is an operational strategy that aims to minimize the ratio between railroads’ operating costs and their revenues through various cost-cutting and (ostensibly) efficiency-increasing measures. The basic idea is to transport more freight using fewer workers and railcars.

    One way to do this is to make trains longer: A single 100-car train requires less track space than two 50-car ones since you need to maintain some distance between the latter. More critically, one very long train requires fewer crew members to run than two medium ones.

    Another way to get more with less is to streamline scheduling so that trains are running at full capacity as often as possible.

    All this has worked out poorly for rail workers writ large. Over the past six years, America’s major freight carriers have shed 30 percent of their employees. To compensate for this lost staffing, remaining workers must tolerate irregular schedules and little time off since the railroads don’t have much spare labor capacity left.

    Of course, the railroads are in the business of moving freight, not creating jobs. In theory, if these firms could cut labor costs without degrading service, the broader economy could benefit. The railroads could pass on their savings to shippers in the form of lower rates, thereby putting downward pressure on a wide range of consumer prices. Furthermore, the more cost-competitive freight rail becomes relative to trucking, the lower the American economy’s carbon emissions will be.

    Thus, according to the rail barons’ boosters, P.S.R. represents an innovation that is good for shippers, consumers, and the planet but bad for America’s least productive rail workers. The rail unions’ opposition to P.S.R. is therefore, in this account, myopically self-interested and contrary to the greater good.

    Unfortunately, P.S.R. works better in theory than in practice — at least for every stakeholder besides the activist investors who imposed P.S.R. on the industry in the first place.

    For shippers, the problems with P.S.R. are twofold. First, and most fundamentally, the dominant rail firms feel little need to pass on the fruits of their “efficiencies” to their customers. Decades of consolidation have left the U.S. with only seven Class I railroad companies. Four of those companies collectively control more than 83 percent of the freight market. And the vast majority of train stations in the U.S. are served by exactly one railroad.

    Thus, most shippers can’t credibly threaten to take their business elsewhere. At the margin, rail customers could shift their transport needs toward trucking, but most are reliant on the inherent scale and efficiency of rail transport. So when freight carriers reduce their operating costs, they’re less inclined to pass on those savings in the form of improved customer service or lower rates than to simply shower their shareholders in dividends.

    Last year, the seven dominant North American railways had a combined net income of $27 billion, nearly twice their margin a decade ago. In the interim, the railways have collectively doled out $146 billion in dividends and stock buybacks while investing only $116 billion into their businesses.

    The second problem with P.S.R., from the shippers’ standpoint, is that its scheduling is less precise than advertised. Eliminating spare labor or train cars may render railroads more efficient mechanisms for translating investment into profits. But such fragile systems aren’t necessarily efficient for bringing freight from one place to another, especially in a world where natural disasters and public-health crises exist.

    In early 2021, when the acute phase of the COVID pandemic ended and economic demand spiked, freight carriers’ operations were derailed by their own “efficiencies.” For a week last July, Union Pacific had to suspend service between Chicago and Los Angeles while it reopened shuttered rail ramps and reconfigured operations in order to keep pace with rising orders. Similar disruptions afflicted the other major carriers, as The American Prospect details.

    By summer 2022, the freight carriers were still failing to meet customer expectations. In a July survey from the American Chemistry Council, 46 percent of chemical manufacturers said rail service was getting worse, while just 7 percent said it was getting better. “Freight rail has been a constant thorn in our side and been a significant challenge for our members for quite some time,” Chris Jahn, the council’s chief executive, told the New York Times in September.

    And this is why the freight carriers won’t give ground on paid leave: Already understaffed and underperforming, the railroads cannot allow unanticipated absences to become significantly more prevalent without either pulling back from P.S.R. or suffering even more frequent disruptions and customer complaints.

    And the track to a more resilient (if less “precise”) operating system is blocked by the company’s shareholders.

    A decade ago, the activist investor Bill Ackman won a proxy battle at Canadian Pacific and proceeded to replace its management with a team led by Hunter Harrison, the railway executive who’d pioneered P.S.R. After imposing the gospel of “more with less” at Canadian Pacific, Harrison left to spread the good news to the freight giant CSX. At each firm, P.S.R. succeeded at generating higher returns. Pretty soon, major investors in other railroads started calling on their firms to imitate Harrison’s methods. Testifying to the government’s Surface Transportation Board about freight rail’s performance last spring, industry analyst Rick Paterson said, “Lurking in the background is the constant threat of shareholder activism if any of the railroads’ operating ratios become outliers on the high side.”

    The freight carriers can afford to make concessions on pay. It isn’t that painful to increase wages by a sizable amount when you’ve recently slashed your head count by 30 percent (and hope to continue innovating your way to a smaller payroll in the years to come). But providing rail workers with ordinary time-off benefits would threaten the industry’s core business strategy, an operating procedure that has helped to nearly double its profits over the past decade.

    That strategy is predicated on treating rail workers as if they were nearly indistinguishable from the railcars they drive. The typical railcar requires maintenance at predictable intervals and does not require an unanticipated day off to see a doctor about an unexplained pain or to visit a loved one in the hospital. But workers often do.”

  4. StewartM

    If AOC (and the others) were really “socialist” they’d be for nationalizing the railroads. If the health of the nation’s economy actually depends on rail transport, it shouldn’t be left to the whims of private profit nor the schemes concocted by MBAs ignorant of engineering and technical matters.

    But the chief problem is a self-imposed structural once: our government can force arbitration on workers, but it can’t just do what really needs to be done, to seize the railroads and run them (see Youngstown, Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, where the court blocked Truman from seizing the steel mills even during a time of war).

  5. NR

    The workers can still strike, it’s just that it now becomes an “illegal” strike, meaning they lose things like unemployment benefits. Also the internal rules for some unions prevent funds from being used for such actions.

    So a strike is still a possibility. However it’s important to note that the rail unions are not, well, united in this. Only four of the twelve unions voted to reject the new contract. So a strike, especially an “illegal” strike, may not be much of a possibility.

    Still, in cases where the workers are united, these kinds of “illegal” strikes need to be strongly considered when the circumstances call for them. We only have the labor protections we have today because of such “illegal” actions, after all.

    Another important point is that an “illegal” strike is not necessarily a criminal act In cases where striking is actually a criminal act, unions have other options available to them, such as working-to-rule, boycotts, etc., to force concessions.

    (Reposted to fix italics, sorry about the double comment Ian).

  6. different clue

    That’s the only House Democrats who voted against? Where were the few legacy New Deal throwbacks? Where was Kaptur? Where was Dingell?

    Did any House Republicans vote against? That would be interesting to know. If any did, they might be spotting an early opportunity to be “pro working class” even if only performatively and only to take some votes away from Democrats. Which might still scare Democrats if enough votes could be drained away thereby.

    So now the action moves to the Senate. Rubio poses as pro-railroad-worker. So does Sanders. I am sure Sanders means it but he is too scared of lowering Dem chances of winning the presidency in 2024 to take any desperate measures to prevent such a bill from passing in the Senate.

    I wonder if McConnell and the other Senate Republican leaders are cynical enough to support the railroad workers with a bill mandating every single thing they ask for right there in the bill in order to corner Biden with it? Dare Biden to veto it which we know he would like to do.

  7. Mark Level

    Thanks for the timely post, Ian. One central point you make is that people with nothing to lose will strike when their back is to the wall. What alternative do they have? To starve and die quietly? So I knew AOC and the rest would do NADA except have a performative vote– oh, we “tried” to help you, really!! It’s fore-destined to lose of course and they’ll all take their checks from the RR barons! “This whole country is full of lies, you’re all gonna die and you’ll die like flies.”– Lyrics from the brilliant Nina Simone’s Mississippi, Goddamn! (written in 1963 after the KKK state allied folks bombed those 4 little girls dead in a Birmingham church.) Many historians have noted that the arrival of revolutions is sudden and they are nearly always unexpected by nearly everyone. I would like to think that we are approaching such a time currently– of course, it could just be my observer bias, since I have hated the US government & its endless wars, looting and racism since my late teens, that’s roughly 45 years ago. This kind of shit really does make me feel “the mask is off”, however– the “Party of Working People” (puke!) sides with billionaires to tell workers that you don’t get any sick days, I guess the “agreement” Biden’s trying to lock in says that they get 1 sick-day a year, up from 0? And all the little piggies in Congress line up for their paychecks from the oligarchs . . . As a retired teacher very active in my union for years (which management intermittently came after me for) I know that between 2014-18 the later-dubbed “Red for Ed” movement unions in Red states like Wisconsin did wildcat strikes for exactly the reasons you cover Ontario custodial workers doing. I hope we are at that point with RR workers? On the other hand, reading the thread above I am NOT encouraged that someone shared 8 of the 12 RR unions are for crumbling and surrendering, swallowing the shite they’re being force-fed. Dunno how much lower things can get, guess we will see! Oh, in closing, you only left out one piece (tho’ we all could’ve expected it)– the MSM propaganda about the “disaster” if greedy workers get anything at the RR corporations. I’m not a big fan of weak tea establishment Libs like Sam Seder of TYT but if one looks on YouTube there are some good segments that can be found about the millionaire spokes-models who deliver “news” on the legacy Fox/CNN/MSDNC/National Propaganda Radio links– again, just to be expected I guess. USA is Kiss Up and Kick Down. One does wonder when those at the bottom will start to kick up?

  8. Joan

    I wanted to echo what NR said, that you can still strike. I know a nurse in the US who has been striking; one of the rounds of strike happened after the union leaders accepted a compromise but the nurses voted against it and struck anyway.

    And despite the media smearing them as spoiled and entitled, what I hear from this friend of mine is they need more safety protocol. She is on a floor where being in charge of more than five patients at once would be dangerous, yet she’s had to be in charge of 12-14 before. Patients could die from petty things like choking or allergic reactions to medication because the nurses are running around to their other patients. My friend runs through her whole shift. She not only doesn’t get a meal break but she usually can’t even find the time to pee.

    When covid was new, nurses were being forced to work with active covid. Some of them quit just so they wouldn’t spread covid to others, then came back once they had recovered. Now they are at least allowed time off if they have covid, but the staffing issues and danger to patients remain. And this is union nurses who at least have a mechanism in which to fight and are using it.

  9. NR

    Mark Level: I would hesitate to characterize the workers who voted to accept the contract as having crumbled or surrendered. Now, I fully believe the rail workers should get paid sick days, and a lot more than seven of them for that matter. But the contract actually offers a pretty big wage increase to the workers. It’s a 24% increase by 2024 with an immediate $11,000 payout per worker on signature of the contract. That is a lot of money. Given that, I can understand why many of the workers would vote to accept the contract even without the sick days. Probably a lot of them made the calculation that the money is a guarantee, while it’s not certain that they’ll need the sick days.

    Of course they should have gotten the money AND the sick days, but that is not the world in which we live unfortunately.

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