Sanders: “What we should be doing is telling the CEOs in the rail industry: Treat your workers with dignity and respect, not contempt.”
WASHINGTON, Sept. 14 – Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) today, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, objected to the motion for unanimous consent on the Republican Burr-Wicker resolution aimed at harming rail workers in their fight for sick days and better working conditions.
Sanders’ remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below and can be viewed here:
M. President: Reserving the right to object, and I will object. But before I do let me say a few words not only about the negotiations between railroad workers and management but also to briefly put this crisis into the broader context of what’s now going on in this country.
Today we have more income and wealth inequality than at any time in the history of our country. People on top are doing phenomenally well while working people are struggling to keep their heads above water.
During the pandemic, while essential workers like those employed at the railroads put their lives on the line and sometimes died doing their jobs, the billionaire class saw a $2 trillion increase in their wealth. Workers died by the thousands while the very rich became much richer. Further, as healthcare costs soar, we have over 70 million people who are uninsured or underinsured. In addition, disgracefully, we remain the only major country on earth not to guarantee paid family and medical leave.
Now within that broad context let’s take a look at why there is an impasse in the current negotiations.
M. President: As I understand it, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is currently meeting with the rail unions and management. I wish them well and hope those meetings lead to an agreement that is fair and that is just.
But let’s make no mistake about what’s happening in the rail industry right now. And that is that the industry has seen huge profits in recent years and last year alone made a record-breaking $20 billion in profit. And let me also mention that the CEOs of many of these railroad companies are enjoying huge compensation packages.
For example, last year, the CEO of CSX made over $20 million in total compensation, while the CEOs of Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern made over $14 million each in total compensation. In other words, within the rail industry corporate profits are soaring and the CEOs are making incredibly large compensation packages.
I would also add that the parent company of BNSF, one of the largest freight rail companies in America, is Berkshire Hathaway owned by Warren Buffett.
Mr. Buffett is the fourth wealthiest man in America worth nearly $100 billion. During the pandemic, as rail workers risked their lives to keep the economy going, Mr. Buffett became $33 billion richer.
But M. President: In the midst of all of those profit increases for the industry, huge compensation packages for their CEOs and increased wealth for their very rich owners, what’s going on for the workers?
The key issue in the current negotiations are not about salaries. They are about the working conditions in the industry which are absolutely unacceptable and almost beyond belief.
Right now, if you work in the freight rail industry – one of the most grueling and dangerous jobs in America – you are entitled to a grand total of zero sick days. Let me repeat that. You are entitled to a grand total of zero sick days.
What that means is that if you get sick, if your child gets sick, if your spouse gets sick and you need to take time off of work not only will you not get paid, you actually could get fired. And that is precisely what is happening today in the rail industry. How absurd is that?
M. President: Let me remind you that hundreds of Americans are still dying every day from COVID and tens of thousands are being hospitalized as a result of this deadly virus.
What the freight rail industry is saying to its workers is this: It doesn’t matter if you have COVID. It doesn’t matter if you are lying in a hospital bed because of a medical emergency. It doesn’t matter if your wife has just given birth. It just doesn’t matter. If you do not come into work, no matter what the reason, we have the right to fire you. Really? Do these conditions really exist in America in the year 2022?
M. President: I wonder if the CEO of the railroad or other top executives at the railroad get fired when they get sick or have a medical emergency in their families? I doubt that very much.
Further, I should add, that quite sensibly the federal government guarantees 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave to its workers. So if you are an employee at the Department of Transportation in the United States, sitting behind a desk, you are appropriately guaranteed 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. But if you are engineer running a train with tons of freight behind you, you get zero sick leave. That may make sense to somebody, it doesn’t make sense to me.
As a result of this reactionary policy of denying workers sick time, rail conductors, engineers and other rail employees are coming into work sick and exhausted – which is a danger not only to themselves but to their co-workers and everyone else who is around them.
M. President: As part of the contract negotiations, the rail workers are asking for 15 paid sick days. That is not a radical idea. We are the only major country on earth that does not guarantee paid sick days. In Germany, workers are entitled to 84 weeks of paid sick leave at 70 percent of their salary. In Norway, workers are entitled to one year of paid sick leave at 100 percent of their salary. In the UK, workers are entitled to up to 28 weeks of paid sick leave. The rail workers in the United States aren’t asking for a year of paid sick leave. They’re not asking for six months of paid sick leave. They are asking for 15 days. 15 days.
Now, the rail industry has said that they can’t afford to do that. They say it would cost too much money to provide their workers any paid sick days.
Let’s see. They made over $20 billion in profits last year. They provide their CEOs with huge compensation packages. And here’s something else that everyone should know. Last year, the industry spent over $18 billion not to improve rail safety, not to address the supply chain crisis in America, but to buy back its own stock and hand out huge dividends to its wealthy stockholders. In fact, since 2010, the rail industry has spent over $183 billion on stock buybacks and dividends.
So here’s where we are, M. President. It turns out that guaranteeing 15 paid sick days to rail workers would cost the industry a grand total of $688 million a year – less than 3.5 percent of its annual profits.
M. President: If four major rail carriers can afford to spend over $18 billion a year on stock buybacks and dividends, please do not tell me they cannot afford to guarantee 15 paid sick days to its workers and allow them to have a reasonable quality of life.
If the Burr-Wicker resolution passed, rail workers would be entitled to zero paid sick days and zero unpaid sick days. That is clearly unacceptable.
But M. President, the outrage over the lack of paid sick leave is not the only issue being negotiated.
The rail workers of this country are sick and tired of unreliable scheduling which is having an horrendous impact on their personal and family lives.
In America today, rail workers are on call for up to 14 consecutive days, 12 hours a day.
In fact, it is not uncommon for many rail workers to be on-call virtually 24 hours a day with a requirement to report to work within 90 minutes for shifts that can last nearly 80 hours.
My office has heard from rail workers who received calls from management at two in the morning requiring them to show up for work at 4AM. M. President: Again, that is not only unacceptable that is dangerous and it has led to a substantial increase in the rate of injuries in the freight rail industry.
If the Burr-Wicker resolution were to pass, these unfair and unsafe working conditions would be allowed to continue – threatening the safety not only of the workers but of passengers as well.
Finally, M. President, the Burr-Wicker resolution could allow the freight rail industry to substantially increase the cost workers would have to pay for healthcare.
M. President: Let’s be clear. We are talking about an industry that not only made $20 billion in profits last year and spent over $18 billion on stock buybacks and dividends.
We are talking about an industry that has slashed its workforce by nearly 30 percent over the last six years – leaving its remaining workforce woefully understaffed and overworked.
We are talking about an industry that has seen its profit margins nearly triple over the past 20 years.
M. President: Today, what Congress should be doing is not passing the Burr-Wicker resolution and forcing railroad workers back to work under horrendous working conditions. What we should be doing is telling the CEOs in the rail industry:
Treat your workers with dignity and respect, not contempt.
Do not fire workers for “the crime” of going to a doctor when they get sick.
Make sure that your workers have 15 paid sick days and adequate time off to rest and spend time with their families.
At a time when you’re making record breaking profits do not increase the cost of healthcare for your employees.
The CEOs in the freight rail industry need to understand that they cannot have it all.
The railroad industry must agree to a contract that is fair and that is just.
And if they are not prepared to do that, it is time for Congress to stand on the side of workers for a change.
Rail workers have a right to strike for reliable schedules.
Rail workers have a right to strike for paid sick days.
Rail workers have a right to strike for safe working conditions.
Rail workers have a right to strike for decent benefits.
The Burr-Wicker resolution would take these fundamental rights away from workers. We cannot allow that to happen.
Therefore, M. President, I object.