Bernie Sanders to Warren Buffett: Give Rail Workers Better Conditions to Avoid Strike

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Yves here. Warren Buffet should be embarrassed, early and often. But Obama had called Buffett “an example of what’s best in this country” before he became President. And Buffett was widely reported as Obama’s best buddy in 2011.

Not surprisingly, the Biden Administration is not using its leverage or its bully pulpit.

By Jake Johnson. Originally published at Common Dreams

With rail workers on< the verge of launching a national strike over atrocious conditions and a lack of sick days, Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday called on billionaire Warren Buffett to intervene and ensure that BNSF Railway—a company owned by Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway—offers its employees adequate pay and quality-of-life policies as negotiations remain stalled.

“In the midst of a potential rail strike, Warren Buffett, the owner of BNSF Railway’s parent company, worth $100 billion, must intervene,” Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote on social media. “During the pandemic, Mr. Buffett became $36 billion richer. He must ensure that rail workers receive decent wages and safe working conditions.”

Buffett—who famously said “there’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning”—has previously dismissed Sanders’ requests to step in on the side of workers in contract disputes involving the billionaire investor’s companies.

Members of several national U.S. rail unions could go on strike Friday as freight rail carriers refuse to budge on workers’ push for changes to attendance policies that the unions say are “destroying the lives of our members.” BNSF and Union Pacific Railroad both have points-based attendance policies that penalize employees even if they’re forced to take a day off due to a family emergency or doctor’s visit.

“Penalizing engineers and conductors for getting sick or going to a doctor’s visit with termination must be stopped as part of this contract settlement,” the heads of SMART Transportation Division and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen said in a statement Sunday. “Let us repeat that, our members are being terminated for getting sick or for attending routine medical visits as we crawl our way out of a worldwide pandemic.”

Sanders, the chair of the Senate Budget Committee and a longtime ally of the labor movement, spotlighted the rail workers’ fight for better conditions on Tuesday, declaring that “the railroad industry, which made $20 billion in profits last year, cannot continue to deny workers paid sick leave.”

“It is unacceptable and dangerous for conductors and engineers to be on call for 14 consecutive days, 12 hours a day, and then get fired for going to a doctor,” the senator added.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Biden administration officials have “been in regular contact with Greg Abel, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, while trying to find a solution” to avoid a strike whose impacts could be widespread. Unions have accused rail giants of engaging in “corporate extortion” by announcing an embargo on certain shipments in advance of the strike.

U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is expected to meet with rail carrier and union representatives Wednesday in an effort to facilitate a last-minute deal.

Democratic congressional leaders, meanwhile, have suggested they could try to intervene to avoid a strike as Republicans say “they would push the Senate to vote on imposing a settlement, a stance backed by business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” Politico reported Tuesday.

“I really feel like people are not appreciating that Warren Buffett and his friends are shutting down the supply chain to force Congress to mandate 125,000 railroad workers go to work with no weekends or sick leave,” tweeted Labor Notes‘ Jonah Furman.

Last month, an emergency board established by President Joe Biden offered its recommendations for an agreement between the rail carriers and workers, a proposal that included significant wage increases.

But Labor Notes reported that the proposed wage hikes were “offset by increases in healthcare costs—and come in the midst of high inflation.” The board’s compromise plan also didn’t address the quality-of-life issues, including attendance policies, that have been central to the yearslong dispute.

“Sadly, the Presidential Emergency Board recommendation got it wrong on this issue,” said Jeremy Ferguson and Dennis Pierce, the respective presidents of SMART Transportation Division and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “These employment policies have forced thousands of employees out of the industry and make it all but impossible to recruit new workers. With understaffed operations, these railroads abuse their best customers by refusing to provide deliveries consistent with their legal obligations.”

“These self-appointed titans of industry complain constantly about government regulation and interference—except now when it comes to breaking the backs of their employees,” the pair added. “It’s time for the federal government to tell the CEOs who are running the nation’s railroads into the ground that enough is enough.”

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    1. Paul Art

      Thanks for the link. When you read about the 1% and its burblings like Mungers it is real easy to understand why greedy creatures like him and Buffett need to pass through the veil into the 7th circle before things can improve on Earth. Absolutely nauseating people. But the quandary is how many pension funds are invested in B Hathaway? That was the single greatest trick Wall Street pulled off since the advent of 401k and the death of defined benefits. Every half successful moron with a 925 job thinks he is going to be Buffett one day. I have worked with many. People who don’t even clear a $150,000 after 10 years of writing code.

  1. rookieEMT

    I so want them to strike, the stories about their working conditions are disgusting.

    I’m not sure what I’ll do though if congress for some reason says ‘no’ to their right to strike.

  2. Amateur Socialist

    Buffett and his managers are attacking workers right to a weekend.

    It makes one wonder what it might take to get Union Friendly JR Biden in opposition. Or his Transportation Secretary. Etc.

    Sometimes I imagine the possibility of making political malpractice an actual crime. Except for the possibility of getting such a law enacted by politicians.

    1. Hepativore

      I would be surprised if Congress does not listen to the cries of billionaires and order all of the railway workers back to work. I am guessing it will be a repeat of what happened to the air traffic controllers back in the 1980’s.

      Biden is just as anti-union as almost all of the presidents we have had since the dawn of the neoliberal era, he is just more two-faced about it. Losing elections are a risk that the Democratic Party considers the cost of doing business with its corporate funders. Angering party donors on the other hand is something that the DNC would never dare consider, as it would have drastic consequences for their fundraising for decades.

    2. upstater

      Well, it is worse than that… Union Pacific has/had a policy allowing for only 2 consecutive days off in a 28 day period. The BNSF attendance policy is positively draconian.

      The nature of the work is such that most operating employees are on the road, in a “pool” (usually in a set territory between 2 terminals) or an “extra list” (any compass direction from a terminal) that operates on a FIFO basis. Preference is given for calling when at an “away” terminal to ostensibly reduce time away from a home terminal. There are NO set starting times, it can be literally and time of day or week whether at the home or away terminal.

      There are a few exceptions. Some road assignments can be on scheduled trains, but therecare few of these. Before Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), workers could bid on yard assignments or “locals” that worked solely within or around a terminal. These have fixed starting times and days off. Now most yards have been closed, and there are very few locals as the industry moved to containers. Switching is done by road crews, swapping blocks of cars enroute.

      Part of PSR is selective management enforcement of safety and operating rules as a means of harassment and to fire uppity workers. But when it benefits performance goals, ignoring of rules is encouraged.

      There never were sick days. Vacations are bid on a seniority basis; it takes 30+ years to hope to have Christmas or weeks in summer off.

      IMO, Biden and congress will force a cram down settlement, perhaps even before the strike deadline. I can’t imagine these corrupt hacks to allow a strike. The net result will be more experienced workers leaving the industry.

      What I cannot fathom is while railroad workers could be incredibly powerful. There could never be enough scabs to run the network. Yet there has been only timid union leadership and very, very few wildcat actions. I didn’t get it 40 years ago when I worked there, nor anytime since.

      1. JBird4049

        I can’t imagine these corrupt hacks to allow a strike. The net result will be more experienced workers leaving the industry.

        The union leadership is timid because they have be co-opted into the system like the Black Misleadership Class. Betray your people for some bennies and a seat at the big boys table.

        I still do not see where Congress or anyone else can stop the workers from striking. Arrest the workers? Dissolve the unions? What could anyone do to stop them from walking off the job and freezing the whole system?

        It looks like people are expecting the workers to obey this rules based order just because. Kinda of like slavery or child workers or women being under the control of their men. You must accept because it is the natural order of things.

        1. upstater

          From a practical standpoint, railroading is not like an Amazon warehouse, a Starbucks Cafe or an automobile plant, with throngs of workers with similar start, end and lunch times or much opportunity for group discussion and interaction. Workers are very disbursed and work mostly in pairs on 2 person crews. Who would organize a wildcat strike? How long before the goon squad would arrest the wildcat leaders? How would the strikers communicate? Cell texting, Facebook and Twitter are quasi state controlled. The Railway Labor Act was created for the reason to suppress strikes. Wildcat strikes are a nice idea, but extremely difficult in practice. Been there, tried that 40 years ago. One gets slapped down hard and fast with complicity of union officialdom. Mass layoffs from the recession and deregulation in 1982 ended my job there. Things have only gotten much worse since. There is no political party to help in organizing workers – that is the primary difference from 100 years ago and today.

          1. JBird4049

            So, it divide (atomized?) and conquer? This is what the elites want, but even with just two man crews, phone calls, text, emails, even snail mail would be enough to organize something. I get that there are real world problems, but If a date has already been set, what is stopping everyone from spontaneously getting Covid this Friday? It would depend on some mutual trust, but if one already has no weekends and the warnings for a strike have already been given…

            Nobody can say that warnings were not given or that the demands were unreasonable (well, they could, but even the average libertarian would not say asking for weekends is unreasonable, I think.)

            To be more clear, I am thinking of the decades of machine guns and goon/death squads when unions were effectively illegal and strikes happened anyways. Here, it looks like the employees are being worked to death and do not have much to lose anymore. The bosses are being greedy control freaks who are unwilling to budge even the little it would take to avert a strike.

        2. britzklieg

          I have been a member of 4 unions in my life – SAG, AFTRA, AGMA and UFT. SAG was okay, the rest were next to worthless, wholly owned by the paymasters against whom they were designed to mitigate.

          1. c_heale

            If there is no solution and a strike is banned more workers will leave (the working conditions are one of the reasons the railways are short staffedy), and the railways will stop working anyway. It will just take a bit longer.

  3. Glen

    Buffet has a prior history:

    Warren Buffett’s Exploitative Mobile Home Investment – Forbes

    Warren Buffett’s mobile home empire preys on the poor

    Special Investigation: The Dirty Secret Behind Warren Buffett’s Billions

    I would avoid doing business or working for him and his companies if possible.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      I don’t think he’s a fraud and he truly believes what he says,especially on domestic economic issues. But it has become abundantly clear that he doesn’t really know how to wield power, pulls way too many punches, and is extremely reluctant to throw a knockout blow when he has the chance.

      Given that he was way ahead of Biden in the primary polls before the Clintons/Obamas convened for the Night of the Long Knives to rig things for Uncle Joe, I do believe he could have won the presidency as a 3rd party candidate in 2020 given the weakness of the other two options.

      1. Lambert Strether

        > But it has become abundantly clear that he doesn’t really know how to wield power

        I agree. The time to pivot was 2020, when Covid and the union movement were simultaneously peaking; I could dig out my posts at the time. But 2020 seems an age ago, doesn’t it?

    2. britzklieg

      He totally signed on to Russiagate as well, under the misguidance of the odious Matt Duss. And are we really supposed to believe the near 100% victory margins Biden won with S. Carolina and after? I believe Lambert has stated the Dems are great at rigging the primaries. That kind of rigging seems so obvious, designed as character assassination, imho, especially with Sander’s strong showings before the long knives came out. He took a lot of money from his supporters and then handed most of it to the DNC for the bumbling mummy’s threadbare victory over ex-president comb-over. It was a different kind of “bern” I felt when he voted to send those billions to the Nazis in Ukraine.

  4. Ted

    Thanks for the article and the small look into life on the rails. I worked on the rails for thirty years from 1979 to 2010 and with each passing adminstration in Washington things got progressively worse. So maybe people think Joe isn’t doing much but he is doing more that his predecessors for the unions . The biggest sticking point with railroad management is they want rid of the conductor on trains period ! The Biden administration through the Federal Railroad Adminstration has started the process to require two person crews on over the road trains , will have to wait and see what the end result is . The Buffets of America are the same ones that sent soldiers to Vietnam to stop the communist from spreading around the globe . Manufacturing was then sent to communist China with tax breaks to break labors back here at home.

    1. flora

      So maybe people think Joe isn’t doing much but he is doing more that his predecessors for the unions .

      We shall see. /;)

  5. dogwood

    Excellent interview by Max Alvarez on Breaking Points with a 17 year locomotive engineer on upcoming strike. Lindsey’s description of his work days and general overall treatment, along with the steady nickel and diming of employees by monopoly owners is, like so many other jobs these days, positively stomach churning.

    1. Spring Texas

      Yes, that’s a terrific segment but hearing about the conditions made my blood boil. Though long, it was extremely informative and I knew a lot more at its conclusion.

  6. cnchal

    AI to the rescue. What else can be used to create a schedule that treats workers humanely?

    Nahhh. That will never happen. Buffet’s AI has already figured out how to harvest almost every calorie that passes a railroad workers lips. No weekends, punished for seeing a doc . . . only 30 days total off in a year! BNSF management is criminal. It is similar to Amazon’s churn and burn employment practices in that it targets single men as the preferred employee, whereas Amazon targets the desperate.

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