For Decades, Rail Executives Have Raked in Record Profits at Workers’ Expense


For Decades, Rail Executives Have Raked in Record Profits at Workers’ Expense

Railroad workers have reached a new tentative union contract with rail companies, averting a potential strike set to start on Friday that could have shut down rail service across the United States. The deal, which has yet to be released in writing and ratified by union members, is said to grant one paid sick day to workers, allow workers to attend medical appointments without being subject to attendance policies, and give a “semblance of a schedule” to rail workers, who are currently on call to work 24/7. Locomotive engineer Ron Kaminkow, the organizer for Railroad Workers United, says the railway crisis is “30 years in the making,” and describes how resentment has grown among workers as rail company executives slash resources for their employees while raking in record profits.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Negotiators for railroad companies and workers have reached a tentative deal to avert a potential strike that was set to start at 12:01 Eastern time, just after midnight tonight, and could have shut down rail service across the United States. This comes after Labor Secretary Marty Walsh met with union leaders and railroad company negotiators for some 20 hours, into the early morning today, with President Biden calling in personally around 9 p.m. Wednesday night to the meeting.

A railroad worker strike could upset the country’s supply chain of food and much more, potentially causing prices to skyrocket. It would also shut down travel for long-distance passenger trains which use the same tracks as freight rail.

The White House announced the agreement in a statement early this morning, calling it an “important win for our economy and the American people.” The deal must still be ratified by union members.

The Washington Post reports it meets one of the workers’ key demands: quote, “the ability to take days off for medical care without being subject to discipline.” Washington Post reporter Lauren Kaori Gurley wrote on Twitter, “Workers will receive voluntary assigned days off AND a single additional paid day off. (They previously did not receive sick days.) + The agreement provides members with ability to take unpaid days for medical care without being subject to attendance policies.”

For more, we go to Reno, Nevada. We’re joined by Ron Kaminkow, a locomotive engineer who’s worked in both freight and passenger service and first hired out as a brakeman with Conrail in 1996. He’s the organizer for the Railroad Workers United, previously served as the secretary and general secretary of the RWU, which is an interunion, cross-craft, solidarity caucus of railroad workers across North America.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Ron. This news came out a few hours before Democracy Now! went on the air. Can you talk about this tentative deal? What was at stake for the workers and for rail across the country?

RON KAMINKOW: Well, good morning, Amy. It’s pretty early out here on the West Coast. I did get the news. I think all of us are now trying to make some sense of what the tentative agreement is. Without actually seeing that agreement in writing, it’s very hard to make any kind of statement of support or opposition to it. It does sound like the three major sticking points for the operating craft unions were these, basically, three issues.

Most over-the-road freight train operators in this country, engineers and conductors, have traditionally not had any paid sick leave. So that was issue number one. It sounds like the tentative agreement grants a single sick leave day, which is a bit of an insult, one would think. Most workers have 10 to 15 sick days, I believe. So it sounds like the tentative agreement has one single paid sick leave day.

Also, it sounds like we will not penalized now for taking time off work for a medical appointment.

And then, last but not least, it sounds like there is going to be some sort of semblance of a schedule. And that probably is the key here, because railroad workers traditionally have not had a schedule. We’re on call, subject to a two-hour call, 24/7. And it seems like to bring us into the modern era, we should have some semblance of a work schedule. Now, it says, what I read, voluntary assigned days off. It’s hard to say exactly what that means, and the devil is in the details.

The rank and file will have the last word. And so, it will be circulated amongst the membership in the coming days and weeks, and we’ll have a much better idea, probably by this afternoon, exactly what this tentative agreement that was brokered holds for railroad workers.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ron, could you explain when unions started opposing these conditions? I mean, some of the things that they’ve been protesting, what you’ve just pointed out, that workers were penalized for taking — for having medical appointments or taking sick leave, I mean, the fact that there was absolutely no paid sick leave, how long have these conditions been protested? And also, how many unions were involved?

RON KAMINKOW: I’ll start with the first question. This culmination that we’re seeing has been 30 years in the making. I entered the industry 26 years ago, and I was amazed at the lack of time off, the number of hours that we would work. And you could make good money. This was a job traditionally that you could hold with a high school graduate. And there was a time when railroad workers actually had the ability to do what’s called mark off, if you were a brakeman, conductor, engineer, and take a week or two off to take care of business, get some rest, enjoy a new romance, go to Florida.

We lost all that. And now it’s lean and mean. They do not want one more worker on the payroll than absolutely necessary. So, we lost the right to be able to work when we want, and not when we don’t want to work, and that has been getting more and more restrictive with the passing years. We’ve never had sick time, but until recently it wasn’t really an issue, because the right to work when you wanted to, and not when you didn’t want to, was considered one of the perks and benefits of a railroad job in the operating crafts. That has gone away completely and been replaced by harsh attendance policies.

And this trend has accelerated particularly under the new operating plan that has most all of the big Class I railroads in its grips right now, which is this thing called precision scheduled railroading, which is just a fancy way of saying lean and mean production, we’re going to cut maintenance, we’re going to cut costs, we’re going to cut staffing, and otherwise do whatever we can to pump up the stock price, increase the profitability of the carrier, reduce the operating ratio, and so forth. And one of those ways to do that, it’s assumed, is to get more work out of the existing workforce. And it’s made for a completely miserable situation in recent years. It was already bad 25 years ago when I was in the freight industry. And so, what we’re seeing now is workers with five, 10 and 20 years’ seniority leaving the industry. Something that was unheard of even 10 years ago is now very, very commonplace.

As for the second question, unfortunately, we have 12 unions on the railroad. We started to organize early on. Railroading was a very dangerous industry in the 19th century, and so railroad workers were some of the first to organize. But we organized along craft union lines. This quickly was understood by many union leaders and most rank-and-filers, that was quite inefficient. Unfortunately, in 1926, the Railway Labor Act kind of ossified this archaic system, and to this day we’re still left with 12 different unions all at the bargaining table, who have the ability to cut deals, reach tentative agreements on their own. And some of these unions actually have a very small number of members. So, at the end of the day, the whole bargaining of railroad workers would be made much more streamlined, and I believe railroad workers would have a lot more power, if we could go into bargaining with these Fortune 500 corporations, the Class I carriers, united as one single organization. But, unfortunately, that’s not the case.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Ron, the deal still has to be ratified by union members. Do you think that’s likely?

RON KAMINKOW: It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of discontent out there. Railroad workers believe that this was our time. There was conditions in our favor. The labor movement is on the resurgence. The supply chains are a mess. The rail carriers are desperate for employees. There’s a lot of momentum on our side, and there’s a lot of deep anger and resentment.

The fact that the rail carriers have made record profits for the much of the last 25 years — the rail carriers actually made record profits right through the recession of 2008 and ’09. They made record profits right through the pandemic. And today, while — excuse me — as we speak, there are probably hundreds of freight trains standing idle, awaiting for rested crews, because the rail industry cut to the bone so deep that they simply do not have enough employees, conductors and engineers, and also machinists and maintenance workers to keep things together, to properly operate the railroad. And yet they’re still making record profits right through this debacle.

And so, it would seem that one of the ways to alleviate the crisis in rail right now would be to advance workers’ conditions to make the job once again more pleasing, to retain employees and to make it easier to recruit. Very few people want to work for the railroad now. In the old days, railroad workers would advise their children to get jobs on the railroad. That pretty much is a thing of the past.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Ron —

RON KAMINKOW: It’s very unlikely —

AMY GOODMAN: — the significance of this going right to the top? I mean, for this negotiation to go on for 20 hours with Marty Walsh, the secretary of labor, then Biden calling in at 9:00, considered the most pro-labor president in history, what this meant for the deal to be sealed this morning — I shouldn’t say “sealed,” because the rank and file decide that in the end, but for those at the table to say they have a tentative agreement at just after 5:00 Eastern time this morning?

RON KAMINKOW: I’m sorry, Amy. What is the question?

AMY GOODMAN: The significance of Biden weighing in? And do you think that he weighed in on the side of the workers? I mean, enormous pressure brought, since, what, one-third of the freight in this country is carried by rail, not to mention Amtrak canceling all its long-term train itineraries for people traveling in passenger rail, so the stakes were extremely high. Does that put more pressure on the owners or on the workers?

RON KAMINKOW: Well, I think there’s a huge amount of pressure on the workers right now after all of this kind of circus that — to vote for this tentative agreement. There is always this idea that, you know, workers are greedy, they’re overpaid, and so forth. If you look at the demands here, of course, they’re not really very economic. We’re talking about having some semblance of a schedule. We’re talking about sick leave, which most workers in highly developed industries, in highly unionized industries, have had for decades, dating back into the mid of the last century. And then, of course, thing able to negotiate attendance policies, that was another issue that apparently has been placated by simply saying you’re not going to be penalized for taking time off for medical reasons. But that leaves the harsh attendance policy on many carriers still in effect.

So, all I can say is the rank and file will have the final word. There is a huge level of discontent amongst much of the rank and file. As we noticed just yesterday, the rank and file of the machinists’ union, which was the first set of union officials to agree to a tentative agreement, the rank and file did vote that tentative agreement down. So it remains to be seen what the conductors’ union and the engineers’ union and the others do in the coming days and weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’ll continue to follow this closely. Ron Kaminkow, we want to thank you very much for being with us, locomotive engineer who’s worked in freight and passenger service, organizer for the Railroad Workers United.

Coming up, we go to Ukraine. We’ll speak with the artist Molly Crabapple — she’s just back from Ukraine — about her latest piece for The New York Review of Books, “In the Shadow of Invasion.” And we’ll speak to a Ukrainian motorcyclist she features in her piece. Stay with us.

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