A proposed contract that was designed to end a three-year deadlock over pay, scheduling, and benefits had just been rejected by his union, SMART-TD, which represents railway conductors and engineers.
The right to strike does not exist for railroad employees.
A few days after we talked, Congress passed a law that made Wurst’s union sign the contract they had rejected.
As companies continue to get rich and powerful, the past year showed how few options workers and unions have at the bargaining table and in court.
Employers in the three largest industries—retail, health care, and hospitality—have changed their budgets to pay anti-union consultants instead of raising wages and benefits for their workers.
On a Monday in late November, I ate breakfast at a cafe in Worcester, Massachusetts, where Nick Wurst, a conductor for the C.S.X. railroad, was from. Wurst, a bearded twenty-six-year-old, was dressed for his 7:30 a.m. shift at the freight port in Framingham, about thirty miles away, when we first met. He was wearing a reflective Carhartt shirt and a knit hat. A proposed contract that was designed to end a three-year deadlock over pay, scheduling, and benefits had just been rejected by his union, SMART-TD, which represents railway conductors and engineers. The agreement was written without the usual talks between the twelve rail unions and the National Carriers Conference Committee, at the request of President Biden. The administration set up an emergency board to avoid a strike. In less than a month, the board came up with a contract.
The emergency board’s proposal went to each unit for a vote, and SMART’s rejection increased the likelihood of a clash. Wurst, who voted against the contract, told me that despite this, “everyone knows the strike will be broken if it comes.” He thought a strike was the only way to get union leaders to fight harder for their members and send a message to the corporate carriers. He had been a socialist for a long time and worked for Railroad Workers United, a progressive group with several unions. He knew he was unusual because of this.
The right to strike does not exist for railroad employees. Under the Railway Labor Act, a law passed in 1926 to prevent work stoppages, the federal government can force a final labor agreement on both railroad companies and unions. In 1936, the law was changed to include the aircraft industry. This was done because keeping people and goods moving was more important than keeping the right to strike. Wurst says it takes away the most important tool a union has: the ability to stop working.
A few days after we talked, Congress passed a law that made Wurst’s union sign the contract they had rejected. The administration and corporate rail carriers, represented by the Association of American Railroads, said the measure was needed to stop a strike that would have hurt the economy badly. Jessica Kahanek, a spokeswoman for the association, said that the railroads are negotiating extra local contracts about schedules and paid time off. But the forced agreement showed a bigger, more depressing trend for railroad workers like Wurst and many other workers across the country. Polls show that 71% of Americans now support unions, the highest number since 1965. However, many workers have concluded that the U.S. government doesn’t do much to protect them and that the laws mostly favor employers over employees.
Workers under the new railroad contract got wage hikes that started to counteract inflation, but they would still have to work long hours with on-the-spot scheduling, and the Senate failed to adopt a bill linked to giving them a few paid sick days. Wurst was shocked by both Biden and the secretary of labor, Marty Walsh. Walsh used to be the head of a union in Massachusetts, which made his betrayal even more personal. Biden’s pro-labor oath rang hollow to Wurst. Other Southwest and Rocky Mountain railroaders said they agreed with the government but didn’t like how the Railway Labor Act limited them. “I genuinely believe that given how things turned out, the railroads are aware that all they need to do is relax and wait, and Congress will take care of them.” April Ford, a fifty-eight-year-old engineer from Wyoming, informed me that they wouldn’t look after us. A union longshoreman I know who works on the West Coast said that he and his coworkers have discussed the railroad deal a lot and were appalled by the thought that federal officials could enforce a contract and prevent a walkout in a related industry. He said it makes all workers nervous, including us, and hurts our rights to bargain as a group.
For obvious reasons, Americans have given their working conditions much more thought since the outbreak. For safer working conditions and increased compensation, they have organized. They have taken part in both short-term and long-term strikes. They have also set up new unions in businesses that have a reputation for being against organized labor. People worldwide are paying attention to the new things Amazon, Starbucks, Apple, Trader Joe’s, Lowe’s, and Chipotle are doing for their customers. But because of American labor laws, it will be hard for these new unions to get many service, logistics, and IT workers to join. These workers make up a growing share of the American workforce.
Starbucks and Amazon fired their top organizers in 2022 in response to employee unrest. They also refused or put off contract talks and questioned the National Labor Relations Board, which was set up by the government in 1935 to protect and promote collective bargaining in the private sector but has since been greatly weakened. Starbucks shut down several locations where unions were being formed, even though it seemed like the board wouldn’t do anything. (Both corporations assert that they complied with labor regulations and deny engaging in retribution.) According to Marina Multhaup, a lawyer for Starbucks Workers United in the Pacific Northwest, “Even if the board does reinstate certain workers or demands that Starbucks reopen a store, that doesn’t reverse the harm to organizing, and that’s not effectuating people’s labor rights.” “At least when it comes to Starbucks, the law has little to no deterrent effect.”
Last year, Congress debated the “Protecting the Right to Organize Act.” It would make it easier for workers to form unions and give the National Labor Relations Board more power to punish bad-faith employers. It would also be helpful if the state and federal agencies ensuring workers follow the rules were given more money. But frustrated workers may be less likely to follow the rules and laws that don’t help them.
When labor leader and attorney Staughton Lynd passed away in November at the age of 92, I took “Labor Law for the Rank and File,” one of his most valuable books, off my shelf. The handbook gives an overview of federal laws, such as those that protect minimum wages, health and safety, and the right to organize, but it does so carefully, making sure not to overstate the importance of any law or rule. “If a situation can be resolved without a lawyer’s assistance, do it,” Lynd said. Soon after he and his wife, Alice, moved to Youngstown, Ohio, to help mostly unionized steelworkers, he put out this short guide to your rights in 1978. But the Lynds realized that being a union member wasn’t everything. The union leadership and the rank-and-file workers frequently had disagreements. Due to their fear of taking chances, many unions agreed to give up their right to strike in collective bargaining agreements. The willingness of individuals who work together to behave in solidarity, according to Lynd, is what gives a worker their ultimate sense of security.
Growing dissatisfaction with pro-management policies could lead to revolt, as it has in the past. This could include work slowdowns, protests, mass resignations, and even wildcat strikes by regular employees. Lynd talked about a former president of a United Steelworkers local in Indiana who remembered how organizing looked before the law got in the way. “A big rush happened without a contract, without an agreement with the company, and without any rules about hours of work, working conditions, or wages,” the man said. We got agreements about working conditions and pay that we don’t have now by doing risky things that freed us from the law.
As companies continue to get rich and powerful, the past year showed how few options workers and unions have at the bargaining table and in court. The railroad firm where Wurst works, C.S.X., reported third-quarter 2022 profits of more than $1 billion, a roughly 15% increase over the same period in 2021. The billionaire Warren Buffett’s B.N.S.F., another country’s most extensive freight railroad, saw a similar windfall this year. Employers in the three largest industries—retail, health care, and hospitality—have changed their budgets to pay anti-union consultants instead of raising wages and benefits for their workers.
A younger generation of unionizing employees, like those at Starbucks and Amazon, are aware of their opponents. They never thought that the National Labor Relations Board or another government agency would handle their organizing on their behalf. They now realize that even a relatively progressive Democratic administration can’t—or won’t—do much to protect that organization after months of store closings and layoffs.