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Rail workers are demanding better work conditions and a strike could be imminent

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

What is at stake if a rail strike moves forward next month? Well, here's President Biden's answer to that question. Quote, "a real shutdown would devastate our economy. Without freight rail, many U.S. industries would shut down." In a statement, the president added, "my economic advisors report that as many as 765,000 Americans, many union workers themselves, could be put out of work in the first two weeks alone," end quote. Well, this is why the president is now pushing Congress to override the process and impose a tentative contract with rail worker unions. His administration had reached a deal on that contract earlier this fall, but several unions voted to reject it. They include the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees. And I am joined now by their president, Tony Cardwell. Mr. Cardwell, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

TONY CARDWELL: Thank you for having me on. I appreciate it.

KELLY: Start by telling me who your union represents. I want to hear what kind of jobs they do.

CARDWELL: Sure, absolutely. We represent all of the - what I call the hardest-working members in the railroad. They do all of the track maintenance and bridge maintenance and tunnel maintenance. They also do new construction. So they build the track, maintain the track, everything except for the signal apparatuses.

KELLY: OK. So it's - if there's a new track needed, a new tunnel needed to get freight - to get trains from Point A to Point B, it's your members who are digging it or building it.

CARDWELL: Correct. And they maintain it. Correct.

KELLY: OK. So let me turn you to today's news and what your reaction is to word that the president is pushing Congress to intervene. And Speaker Nancy Pelosi says, yeah, she's going to put this to a vote in the House.

CARDWELL: Yeah, well, we're frustrated because the legislation that's being pushed through the House doesn't include sick leave days. And that was the sticking point this round. And it's still a sticking point that's not being addressed. And our position from the BMWED is that if you're going to impose an agreement on us and stop us from striking, then we should get what we otherwise would have gotten if we did strike.

KELLY: And specifically for sick leave, what are you calling for?

CARDWELL: We're calling for paid sick time off. Our last negotiation that we had, we proffered four days of paid sick time in a single year, and that was the lowest we were willing to go. They were unwilling to negotiate even a single day.

KELLY: So to be clear, your workers get not a single day of sick leave right now.

CARDWELL: Not a single day of sick leave.

KELLY: Let me let you react to a point that I just quoted the president as making. He has gone out of his way, as you know, to talk about that he supports unions - he's pro-union - but also to say, look; if trains don't move, U.S. industries will shut down. Supply lines are already clogged. They're going to get worse. Deliveries will be delayed. Prices will go up. Do you share this concern?

CARDWELL: Look; over time, it could be a problem. But it's safe to say that the railroads have exasperated the issue, and they have, you know, alarmed people of concerns that are sometimes illegitimate. We were not trying to strike nor was our goal to strike. We simply wanted the sick leave. And the railroads can resolve this easily.

KELLY: Although to push you on this a little, it's not just the railroads pushing back. It's business leaders, a group led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is pushing congressional intervention. It is the railroad industry. And President Biden is saying, this is not just about protecting railroads; this is about protecting Americans, saying that - his point about - that millions of working people and their families would be hurt by a shutdown.

CARDWELL: And they could be over time for sure. They could be. And it is once again not our goal. But why is the pressure not on the railroads to come to the table and negotiate four measly sick days, paid sick days for its workers?

KELLY: Yeah.

CARDWELL: I mean, remember; these are the workers that were hailed as heroes during the pandemic. They were essential workers. They were traveling a thousand, 2,000 miles across the country. And they were doing it in the height of the pandemic, getting sick, getting ill. Some of our members passed away, or if they were sent home for - to be quarantined, they were not being compensated. They lost thousands of dollars in compensation 'cause there is no paid sick time. The railroads have taken advantage of these employees, and it's time that they come to the table. But there's no pressure on them. The pressure is on the unions to concede what we have to give. And this is backwards. It's not so much that it's frustrating that the Congress is intervening. Why can't they intervene, and why can't the legislation include the sick leave? And that's what people should be asking themselves. It's very simple.

KELLY: A question about timing, and I understand you don't love the prospect of Congress intervening, to put it mildly. But if it is going to happen, is there any advantage for you that it would happen now and not in January, when Republicans take control of the House and might back a worse deal from your perspective?

CARDWELL: Oh, sure. I mean, there's definitely an advantage to having this go through now. And the timing is important. If the Republicans did take the House, it could be - they could take more out of our agreement. That's for sure. But the timing is right. And there is a trifecta. And there's no reason why they couldn't have backed the sick leave days in the legislation that's going through.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Tony Cardwell. He is president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees. That is one of the unions that voted down a draft agreement between rail companies and their unionized workers. Mr. Cardwell, thank you.

CARDWELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.