After the latest proposed contract brokered by the Biden administration between the railroad companies and workers was rejected by four of the 12 major railway unions, mainstream media have largely blamed unions for the economic concerns of a looming strike. Reporting has often failed to include the context that railroad corporations held up contract negotiations for three years with their unwillingness to meet worker demands for paid sick leave and better time-off policies, directly leading to the current stand-off.
Although the plight of the railroad workers has received more attention this past year due to the threat of a major rail strike – the last one occurred in 1992 – workers have been fighting for better working conditions for years. While railroad corporations like Union Pacific have returned billions to shareholders in recent years, industry employees are “completely demoralized” by the scheduling system and workload. Freight rail workers have described their job as exhausting and punishing, with one worker telling Vice News that they had “lost any reason to live” working on the railways.
Over the course of the three-year contract battle, union members have struggled with corporations’ apparent opposition to benefits such as paid sick leave, which one union spokesman cited as “a norm in this society.” Rail workers have also described punitive attendance policies, no weekends, and a lack of “routine or accurate schedules.”
Four of the major railroad unions have rejected the September contract, as it does not provide adequate paid time off. The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED) of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a union that has rejected the current contract, had pushed for 13 sick days annually. As Labor Notes reporter Jonah Furman pointed out, the contract the White House brokered only gave “unpaid time off for routine or preventative medical appointments, on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday with at least 30 days notice.”
The second-largest railway union, Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD), also recently voted to reject the contract due to its failure to create a better attendance policy, “under which workers can be penalized or fired for taking a day off to see the doctor.” President Joe Biden has now called on Congress to intervene and force the unions “to adopt this deal” in order “to avert a potentially crippling national rail shutdown.” On November 30, the House passed legislation to avert this rail strike. It will now go to a vote in the Senate.
Mainstream media coverage of the potential strike has often failed to contextualize the role of railroad corporations in the deadlock, and at times it has faulted the unions for the economic disaster a strike could lead to.
As Princeton professor Eddie Glaude said during the November 30 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, the railroad unions “initially asked for 15 days of paid sick leave. They went down to four. This industry made $20 billion in profit last year. That's all we are talking about is folk getting paid sick leave, right? And it seems to me in light of COVID, in light of the flu, in the light of RSV, it makes sense."
"It’s about greed and basic decency,” Glaude concluded.
In an interview with railroad worker David Manning, even host Rob Finnerty of the right-wing media outlet Newsmax admitted that the railroad corporations’ failure to give adequate sick leave to the workers seemed “ridiculous.” Manning described the punitive attendance policies given to railroad workers, saying, “Now we can take virtually one unpaid day off a month and then the only other time we can take off is our paid time which we had to earn the previous year.”
Coverage from CNN and the mainstream print media of the impending rail strike has de-emphasized the major role that railroad corporations have played in the failing negotiations, instead emphasizing union workers’ rejection of the contract and the economic consequences a strike could have.
CNN’s coverage of the potential rail strike blames unions’ hesitation to accept an unfair contract for possible economic fallout
CNN has a history of covering labor movements poorly. The network dedicated a single 5-minute segment to the historic Amazon warehouse unionization effort earlier this year and spent less than 10 minutes covering the revitalized labor movement over the Labor Day weekend this year. In its coverage of the latest development of railroad union contract negotiations and a potential rail strike, CNN has focused heavily on the impact it would have on the economy, while largely glossing over the corporations’ role in this escalated situation.
- On November 22, This Morning co-host Don Lemon asked SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson about the union’s plan for the next step in the negotiations, suggesting that a potential rail strike could affect Christmas presents arriving on time. The show did not interview anyone from the railroad corporations’ side to question them about their responsibility.
- In a correspondent segment the same day on CNN Newsroom regarding the impacts of a potential rail strike, CNN reporter Matt Egan described the potential strike as a “mess” that would “be the last thing that this economy needs right now.”
- On the November 29 edition of CNN Newsroom, anchor Jim Sciutto asked Michael Baldwin, the president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, if the union would be willing to “accept” the cost a rail strike would have on the economy, asking, “Are you aware of the economic impact of this? It is a little less than a month, right, before Christmas here. You know that this would have enormous consequences, and I’m not setting aside the concerns of your members. But are you and your members willing to stop the rails in effect and accept those costs to the U.S. economy?” Sciutto did not do an interview with a representative of any railroad corporation to question them about their unwillingness to grant workers basic sick leave.
- While interviewing Matt Weaver, the legislative director for BMWED, on the November 29 edition of This Morning, co-host Poppy Harlow asked, “Do you believe a strike is worth it if it cripples the U.S. economy?” Harlow did not interview anyone from the railroad company’s side to pose them the same question.
Mainstream print and online coverage emphasizes the economic consequences of strike while ignoring the railroad corporations’ responsibility
In reporting on the rail strike, print outlets have focused on the projections of economic strife as the topline issue. Although some context was typically included about the union's reasons for rejecting the contract, it was often overshadowed by the economic angle and the coverage frequently obfuscated the railroad corporations' denial of basic sick time to workers, routine rejection of time-off requests, and imposition of punishing working schedules.
- In an article published on November 21, ABC News reported on the SMART-TD rejection of the contract saying that the lobbyist group Association of American Railroads had said a strike could cost “$2 billion a day in lost economic output.” The article also noted that a “work stoppage could endanger those [freight] shipments." Only one line mentioned the unions’ frustration over inadequate sick leave policies, and the piece did not include context about the railroad companies’ opposition to some of the unions’ key proposals.
- On November 21, USA Today began an article about the potential rail strike calling the contract rejection a step closer to a “crippling freight rail strike” and threatened that it could “paralyze the economy,” putting the onus on unions to accept the contract. There was no mention of the union workers’ dissatisfaction with the inadequate time off in the contract.
- A Politico article on the latest union rejection of the contract mentioned many stark ramifications of a strike, like deliveries of water purification chemicals being curtailed and stoppage of agricultural shipments, and quoted lobbying groups like the Retail Industry Leader Association on how it would affect the holiday season. While the article did mention the union concerns over “working conditions,” the piece left out what specifically in the proposal unions object to and how railroad companies have stifled their demands.
- In response to Biden calling on Congress to intervene, an article at NBCNews.com focused heavily on the business response to the potential strike amid fears of a “massive disruption” that it could cause and the impact it would have on U.S. cities. There was little discussion of why the unions have continued to reject the contract, except for noting it could be a political win for Democrats to support paid sick leave. No effort was made to discuss the responsibility of the railroad companies for this stalemate.
- Although a Newsweek article mentioned paid sick leave and time off as the primary obstacle for union workers in accepting a contract, there was no mention of how little of it the workers got in the current contract nor was there mention of how the railroads have continued to deny them even in the face of a strike.