SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — A move by the federal government to preempt a possible strike by rail workers amid the busiest shipping season of the years has been described as an action to avert a “devastating economic shutdown.”

That frames the issue primarily as an economic one, when the concerns for workers revolve around health and safety.

Congress has passed a bill, now signed by President Joe Biden, that imposes an agreement on the rail unions, which have been in negotiations with companies such as Union Pacific, BNSF and CSX for two years.

The terms imposed on the unions include a 24% pay increase over a 5-year period (this will apply retroactively, as we are now two years into the five-year period) and one additional personal day off, bringing paid days off per year to two.

A main point of contention, sick days, is not addressed.

Currently the workers have zero paid sick days. A separate bill that passed the House would have provided them seven sick days per year, but it failed to pass in the Senate.

Cornell University ILR School Director of Labor Studies Arthur Wheaton explained why the government was able to step in and make this decision.

“In the railway sector, they’re under a different labor law called the Railway Labor Act of 1920,” Wheaton explained. “Part of the law gives Congress the ability to settle strikes or to preempt strikes. So that’s kind of what happened. That’s where we are today.”

Wheaton says that the workers within the rail unions had good reasons for considering a strike. “There was a lot of people that agree with the workers that wanted to go out on strike over having sick days,” he said.

While this action by the government may seem drastic, Wheaton says it’s not all that uncommon. “I think this was at least the 16th, if not the 19th time, that Congress has had to act to try to stop a rail strike,” he said. “But having the government intervene in railways is part of what led to us celebrating in the United States Labor Day — the history of rail problems is older than the National Labor Relations Act.”

Due to the critical nature of the United States’ rail infrastructure, it is that Railway Labor Act of 1920 that governs labor disputes in the rail industry, as opposed to the NLRA.

So, the federal government has legal power to step in and impose terms on rail workers to prevent a strike. But how does this actually work? I asked Wheaton, what’s to stop the actual workers from striking anyway?

“Police, military,” Wheaton began. “It has led to armed conflict — part of the reason we celebrate Labor Day is that the conflicts did get quite violent in the railway sector — you have different jurisdictions — state police, local police, federal armed agents.”

Wheaton says if workers were to choose to go out on strike, they could have the powers of the U.S. courts, military, National Guard, police, FBI and other agencies aligned against them.

“As bad as it seems to have Congress involved in settling a strike, we’ve had people get killed for fighting for labor rights,” Wheaton said. “So it’s a little bit better than killing them, but it’s also not good forcing people to not have sick time — to not be able to go to your mother’s funeral because you need to give like six months in advance to get a vacation day.”

While the hope is that the imposition of terms by the government can stop a strike and any ensuing government crackdown, it has by no means ended the issue.

“This has not ended,” said Marquita Walker, interim Chair of the Dept. of Labor Studies at Indiana University. “This issue between labor and management has been going on for decades — will continue for decades.”

In the case of the rail legislation, the terms have not satisfied the needs of the workers for paid sick days, meaning that this issue is almost certain to rise again in the near future.

“The main crux for Congress and the President will be to keep — in this capitalist economic system — to keep a free flow of goods and serviced between the states,” said Walker. “That will be their Magnum Opus.”

The goal of the workers, says Walker is different.

“For workers, the Magnum Opus will be, ‘How can I protect myself? How can I protect my family? How can I maintain a decent standard of living so that I can buy my kids shoes and put food on the table?'” Walker said. “It now appears that the issue of sick days will be catapulted to some type of other legislation.”

How likely is future legislation to pass though, considering the failure of the most recent bill containing sick days to make it to the 60-vote threshold needed in the Senate?

Walker says you need the twin prongs of legislative support and favorable public opinion.

For a president such as Biden, who ran on a pro-union ticket with the backing of several large labor organizations, the move to preempt the strike sends a message.

Walker says she understands the reasoning for Biden stepping in early to preempt a potential strike, such as the risks of certain types of cargo such as toxic chemicals sitting stationary during a strike, but she believes his move will catalyze the labor movement to push harder for legislation focused on improving conditions for workers.

“I think the organized labor community was very upset with President Biden for doing this,” said Walker. “He ran on an organized labor ticket — on the idea that he was pro-union, pro-collective bargaining, pro all of these things.”

“You need to wake up and do this because you are actually hurting your workforce and hurting the workers and putting your communities at risk for the sake of billionaires getting more money.”

Arthur Wheaton

Both Walker and Wheaton say now is a good time for labor to make advancements, with approval for unions being at the highest point in years. However, Wheaton warns that significant changes may be tough to come by without what he calls a “significant emotional event.”

“If you have a railway that’s gonna destroy half a downtown Chicago because a train flipped and you’re having hazardous waste everywhere, you might get that wake up call from Congress,” said Wheaton. “Sometimes it takes a catastrophe to get them to do the right thing, but it’s also sometimes where you can get shamed by other countries — You need to wake up and do this because you are actually hurting your workforce and hurting the workers and putting your communities at risk for the sake of billionaires getting more money.”

Wheaton has hope that things could change without such a drastic event occurring, but he says it will take a realization by the public.

“The biggest point is people have started to recognize that unions aren’t just fighting for money,” Wheaton said. “This wasn’t an issue over money — the economic solution for settling this contract was settled relatively quickly. That was not the sticking point. This is for the health and getting paid sick days for the industry.”

“This is absolutely a problem created by management, greedy for money and intentionally reducing their workforce so that they could increase their profits.”

Arthur Wheaton

Wheaton also pushed back on the all-to-common framing of the rail negotiations as being about the workers vs. the economy.

“I don’t see this as a problem that was created by the workers,” Wheaton contended. “This is absolutely a problem created by management, greedy for money and intentionally reducing their workforce so that they could increase their profits — this isn’t a problem that the workers created.”

Despite this, the workers have become a visible part of an issue that was passed to politicians to manage, and Wheaton says that the timing was a factor. “It is a problem that greedy companies created, and unfortunately for the politicians, if they shut down all of the rail just before a holiday in the middle of a pandemic with already increasing inflation, they would not be very popular and they would not get reelected,” he said.

Also noted is that this does not just concern the health of the workers themselves, but also the public, as seen in Wheaton’s example of an ’emotional event.’

“If South Dakota ethanol is trying to ship by rail and it crashes and blows up somewhere, or poisons the water somewhere because someone had a heart attack driving the train that’s an issue,” said Wheaton. “So it’s not just the health of the workers, it could be the health of the communities. Because 240 rail cars is an awful lot of weight to go through a town and a lot of damage and death if it crashes or derails somewhere.”

Wheaton says these concerns have only been exacerbated by factors such as workforce reductions by the rail companies and their ‘draconian’ attendance policy. He points out the system of attendance points, where missing days for illness leads to a loss of points, and the only way to gain those points back is to be on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“Many times that wasn’t even in your house, so that you’re on call in a hotel room out of town, not getting paid, waiting for the phone to ring so you could go to work in the middle of the night without notice,” Wheaton said. “It’s a lot of sleep deprivation. It’s a lot of not getting adequate rest.”

This lack of rest can be a huge safety factor when driving trains that can stretch miles and weigh thousands of tons. Wheaton notes that the airline industry was already successful in passing legislation requiring pilots to get a certain amount of sleep before flying. “I think it may be time for some of those rules to be implemented within the rail sector as well,” he said.