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

Railroad workers have reached a new tentative contract with rail companies. This has prevented a possible strike that could have caused rail service to be shut down 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 final.

AMY GOODMAN:Negotiators from railroad companies and workers reached a tentative deal to stop a potential strike that was scheduled to begin at 12:01 Eastern, just after midnight tonight. It could have resulted in the suspension of rail service across the United States. This is after Marty Walsh, Labor Secretary, met with union leaders, railroad company negotiators, and lasted for around 20 hours. President Biden called in personally at 9 p.m. on 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 could also affect long-distance passenger train travel, which uses the same tracks as freight trains.

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 ANDA single additional paid day off (They did not previously receive sick days. + The agreement provides members with ability to take unpaid days for medical care without being subject to attendance policies.”

For more information, we visit 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 RWUThe, which is an interunion and cross-craft solidarity caucus for railroad workers across North America.

We are happy to welcome you. Democracy Now!, Ron. This news was announced a few hours earlier Democracy Now!went on the air. Can you talk about the tentative deal? What was at stake both for workers and for rail in the country?

RON KAMINKOW:Good morning Amy. It’s pretty early out here on the West Coast. I did get the news. I think we are all now trying to figure out 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. These are the three main issues that seemed to be preventing craft unions from operating.

Traditionally, most over-the-road freight railroad operators in this country, both engineers and conductors have not been paid sick leave. This was issue number 1. It seems like the tentative agreement only allows for one sick day. This is quite insulting. Most workers have between 10 and 15 sick days, I believe. It sounds like the tentative agreement only provides one paid sick day.

It sounds like we won’t be penalized if you take time off work to go to a doctor’s appointment.

The last thing that matters is that it sounds like there will be some form of a schedule. This is probably the key, as railroad workers have never had a schedule. We’re on call, subject to a two-hour call, 24/7. This seems to be a way to bring us into modern times. We should have some sort of work schedule. It states, as I have read, that voluntary days off are allowed. It’s hard to say exactly what that means, and the devil is in the details.

The rank-and-file will have the final 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, can you please explain the origins of unions 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? Also, how many unions were involved in the protest?

RON KAMINKOW: I’ll start with the first question. This culmination that we’re seeing has been 30 years in the making. 26 years ago, I joined the industry. I was surprised at the lack of time off and the amount of hours we would work. It was also possible to make good cash. This was a traditional job that you could share with a high school student. 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.

All that was gone. And now it’s lean and mean. They don’t need one more worker on their payroll than is 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. This is gone and replaced with strict 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 terrible 25 years ago when i was in the freight business. And so, what we’re seeing now is workers with five, 10 and 20 years’ seniority leaving the industry. This is something that was not possible even 10 years ago.

Concerning the second question, there are 12 unions working on the railroad. We organized early. Railroading was dangerous in the 19th century. Railway workers were the first to organize. We organized along craft union lines. This was quickly understood and accepted by many union leaders. 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. Some of these unions only have a small number of members. The end result is that railroad workers’ bargaining would be much simpler. I believe railroad workers would have more power if they could bargain with these Fortune 500 corporations, the Class 1 carriers, as one organization. But, unfortunately, that’s not the case.

NERMEEN SHAIKH:Ron, the deal must still be ratified and 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 this is our time. We had favorable conditions. The labor movement is experiencing a resurgence. The supply chain is a mess. The rail carriers are desperate to find 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 even during 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. Few people are interested in working for the railroad right now. Railroad workers used to advise their children to work on the railroad in the past. This advice is now a thing of the passé.

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’s the question?

AMY GOODMAN:Biden’s weight is significant? And do you think he weighed-in on the side of workers? The stakes were high. Is that more pressure on the workers or the owners?

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. However, the strict attendance policy of many carriers remains in place.

All I can tell you is that rank and file will ultimately have the final say. There is a lot discontent among many rank and files. 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.

Next, we travel 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.