Railroad strike averted, but discontent remains

Ben Kearney, News Reporter

On Sept. 16, the Biden administration secured a tentative deal with railroad worker’s unions, averting the threat of a nationwide railway strike for the foreseeable future. Tensions arose over wages, working conditions and healthcare.

For Ron Kaminkow, a locomotive operator and member of the rail industry since 1996, the reasons for a strike hit close to home.

“Railroad workers, like many industrial workers, have suffered numerous givebacks, particularly in working conditions in the last 30 years,” Kaminkow said. “The last five years under the operating model, known as precision-scheduled railroading, has decimated the workforce.”

Kaminkow is an organizer for the cross-craft railroad worker organization Railroad Workers United. He emphasized the strain the railroad system puts on workers.

“Working conditions and work rules…have caused workers to have limited time off work,” Kaminkow said. “Longer working hours at work, dealing with harsh, grueling Draconian attendance policies and seeing their seniority eroded. Many have been furloughed. Many are back on third shift. Many are away from home longer hours. And many are actually leaving the industry as a result of these conditions.”

President of Columbia Rail Phil Dideleus spoke about the issues raised by Kaminkow.

“The major railroads aren’t keeping up with hiring,” Dideleus said. “The labor market isn’t responding well to the hiring needs of the majors. Shortage of rail workers is much more of a problem going forward than a strike.”

Professor of History Camilo Lund-Montaño recalled the largest railroad strike in American history and how it forever changed the labor movement.

“The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was truly a watershed moment for the labor movement in the United States,” Lund-Montaño said. “In a period of rapid industrialization and westward expansion, the railroad played a crucial role. As railroad companies were making record profits, news of wage cuts led workers to strike and seriously disrupt the railroad networks. This was also met with sympathy strikes from workers in other industries. In most places, workers were met with violence from private security agencies hired by the employers and state militias.”

Strikes for the railroad industry are rare. The last rail strike happened in June of 1992. However, that strike was caused by tensions from a dispute over a new contract. This halted both freight and Amtrak services for two days. With the threat of a strike occurring over 30 years later, Lund-Montaño claims the effect would be much different.

“There would be a strong and concerted effort to control the narrative and place the blame on the unions,” Lund-Montaño said. “But we are going through a resurgence of the labor movement across the country, as a wave of unionization is sweeping through various industries and powerful companies like Amazon and Starbucks. A strike would almost certainly raise the stakes of this resurgence.”

Lund-Montaño’s concerns contradict Kaminkow’s desires. Kaminkow sees strikes as a necessary evil.

“Railroad workers, like any workers, do not want a strike,” Kaminkow said. “But workers and their unions have very little ability to win better wages, benefits and working conditions without at least the threat of carrying out a credible strike. We have the right to strike.”

For those concerned about another strike like the Great Railroad Strike, it is unlikely to happen again today. 

“It would not be similar to the strike of 1877,” Lund-Montaño said. “In that period, the railroad served a central role to industrialization. The federal government also has a very different position towards strikes and unions [than] they did during the Gilded Age. It would not be the equivalent watershed moment regarding the labor movement. But, if the last few years have taught me anything, it is that we should take any prediction with a gigantic grain of salt.”