With daily headlines nationwide about railroad safety legislation, it has come to feel like every day is “Railroad Day on the Hill.” However, the event is formally held once a year on the legislative calendar for representatives from rail unions and rail carriers alike to descend on D.C. to discuss the issues that face our industry.

Members of the SMART Transportation Division contingent, including Alt. National Legislative Director Jared Cassity and Vice President Chad Adams, meet with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (front, right) on May 17 in Washington, D.C.

Under normal circumstances, building relationships with the 535 members of Congress falls on SMART-TD’s staff of three in our Washington D.C. National Legislative Department, but on May 17th’s Railroad Safety Day, plenty of reinforcements within our union marched forth to lead the effort with other labor groups.

This support came in the form of 35 men and women representing 15 different states. State legislative directors, vice state legislative directors, general chairpersons, local legislative reps and state legislative vice chairs from across the country answered the call to help SMART-TD National Legislative Director Greg Hynes, Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity and Legislative Department Chief of Staff, Jenny Miller educate our nation’s lawmakers on rail safety.

This formidable group of SMART-TD representatives was not in D.C. as tourists. Between the group of attendees, they held over 100 meetings with legislators sharing the gospel of the Railway Safety Act of 2023, shorter trains, increased quality of life and better safety inspections of rolling stock with any Congress member or staffer willing to listen.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders addresses a rally for paid sick leave for U.S. workers Wednesday, May 18, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

In addition to holding this important series of meetings and reaching out to over 100 members of the House and Senate, SMART-TD representatives attended a press conference in support of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as he announced his legislation known as the Healthy Families Act. This legislation includes provisions ensuring that every company with over 100 employees provides a minimum of 7 paid sick days to its employees. This bill has language in it that speaks directly to railroad companies.

This bill indicates the progress our union made in the 2022 national contract negotiations. In December 2022, Sanders pushed for similar legislation that was strictly aimed at railroaders and though it won a majority of votes in both the House and Senate, it failed to get the 60 votes it needed to carry a filibuster-proof supermajority and make it to President Biden’s desk to be signed into law.

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming (left), U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman, SMART-Td Wyoming State Legislative Director April Ford and U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis meet on Railroad Safety Day May 18, 2023.
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming (left), U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman, SMART-TD Wyoming State Legislative Director April Ford and U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis meet on Railroad Safety Day May 18, 2023.

With the ramifications of this bill’s success weighing heavily on the quality-of-life improvements that SMART-TD continues to seek for our members, Sen. Sanders reached out to SMART’s Legislative Department and made a point of inviting our representatives to his press conference.

Following the successes of the day’s events, NLD Hynes expressed his gratitude to the army of SMART-TD leaders who made the trip.

“These men and women went above and beyond the call of duty to be here today, and because of them, we had a fantastic show of force in the halls of Congress. The validity of our issues speaks for itself, but when leaders from these different states show up to meet with their congressional and senate delegations it makes an impact on these lawmakers,” he said. “They hear from Jared Cassity and me all the time, but when someone from home comes to meet with them in D.C., it puts a face to our issues in a unique way.

“I want to thank each and every one of them for making the effort to come out this year, and with your help, we will deliver on the promise of the Railway Safety Act, the REEF Act, and all the issues that speak to the quality of life our members deserve and the dignity of the work they do each day.”

SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson and Adam West, secretary and treasurer of SMART-TD Local 744 in Lafayette, Ind., served as speakers during a press conference Feb. 9 demanding that rail companies provide seven days of paid sick leave to workers organized by U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Mike Braun.

Both senators were among a majority that supported a sick leave measure in December that was blocked by filibuster.

“We are here today to send a very strong message to the CEOs in the rail industry, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of the type of corporate greed we are seeing in that industry,” Sanders, a Vermont independent who spearheaded support for a bill guaranteeing paid sick time. “At a time of record-breaking profits, that industry can and must guarantee at least seven paid sick days to every rail worker in America. In the year 2023, that’s not a whole lot to ask.”

Indiana Republican Sen. Braun framed it as a moral, correct and common-sense choice for business owners to take care of employees, treat them like family and help in worker retention.

“When I heard you didn’t have a guaranteed sick day, I wondered how could you get by with that in this day and age? You don’t know when you’re going to get sick,” Braun said. “It’s going to be an issue on keeping employees long-term.”

“Most of this stuff should be natural, and if you do it, it’s in the best interest of your company, long term.”

Local 744’s Adam West speaks at the press conference on Capitol Hill on Feb. 9.

Adam West of Local 744, the S&T out of Lafayette, Ind., and a 18-year conductor/engineer, stated the situation for workers in the operating crafts very plainly.

“When they get sick, they have to make a decision,” between working sick or facing the attendance policy of their carrier,” West said. “You are not going to get the preventive health care you need to stay healthy.”

President Ferguson thanked both senators for their ongoing support during last year’s contract impasse.

“This is a fight that needs to continue, and it is a challenge for all of us union leaders with the railroads, both freight and passenger because historically nobody has had paid sick leave,” President Ferguson said.

SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson addresses the press conference about paid rail labor sick time on Feb. 9.

Six Class I railroads last year spent $20 billion (not including CSX) on buybacks and dividends — $5 billion more than pay and benefits for the entire rail workforce, Sanders said. Plus, rail CEOs made $175 million in three years in a period after cutting 30 percent of its workforce while they implemented Precision Scheduled Railroading.

“They are doing extremely well and what did they do with those record-breaking profits? Did they spend it on making the rail industry safer? No they did not do that.  Did they spend that money on improving the horrendous working conditions today in the rail industry? No they didn’t do that,” Sanders said.

Watch highlights from the press conference in episode six of SMART News.

Harsh attendance policies put in place to force workers to do more with less, a key component of Precision Scheduled Railroad remain intact and have not yet been dismantled.

“Everybody’s seen how difficult it was for our operating employees to have scheduled days off, period,” President Ferguson said. “That is what we’re up against, so to continue now that the national contract dispute behind us, to see thatenergy still coming from our senators, still behind rail labor, not forgetting how bad it was last year … we are very, very thankful for that.”  

“People around the countries are seeing what these workers have to go through. We surely will bring legislation to the floor.”

Sanders, chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, sent a letter Feb. 8 to the CEOs of six Class I rail CEOs urging them to follow the lead of CSX, which made inroads to providing paid sick time to a limited group of 5,000 workers. The White House and DOT are also involved in ongoing talks with rail executives.

“I have news for executives in the rail industry,” Sanders said. “If they think that those of us in Congress who voted for seven paid sick days for workers are going to forget this issue, they got it wrong.”

Also speaking was President Greg Regan of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, BMWED President Tony Cardwell, BRS Vice President Doug VanderJagt, BLET Vice President Vince Verna, and National Association of Chemical Distributors President Eric Byer.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 7 – SMART Transportation Division leadership as well as officers from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes and the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department will join U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and U.S. Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 9, to demand companies provide rail workers with at least seven paid sick days.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders addresses a Rail Solidarity rally organized by SMART-TD on Capitol Hill in December.

Sanders led the effort late last year to pass an amendment to guarantee paid sick days to rail workers. The amendment, which passed the House but failed in the Senate, received the votes of every Senate Democrat but one, as well as six Republicans. Braun voted for the amendment.

Sanders also appeared at a Washington, D.C. solidarity rally attended by members of the SMART-TD, other rail labor groups and supporters.

Following the vote, Sanders and more than 70 of his colleagues sent a letter to President Biden urging his administration to take action to guarantee paid sick days for rail workers.

The press conference comes as rail companies announce record earnings during quarterly earnings calls. Last year, the top railroads made over $26 billion in profits and paid their wealthy shareholders over $25 billion in stock buybacks and dividends. They spent 184 percent more on returns to their shareholders than what they spent on their workers’ wages and benefits. Guaranteeing seven paid sick days to rail workers would cost the industry just $321 million dollars – less than 1.2 percent of profits in a single year. Rail companies have eliminated 30 percent of their workforce over the last six years.

A representative from the the National Association of Chemical Distributors also is scheduled to appear.

What: Sanders and Braun Hold Press Conference with Rail Workers
When: Thursday, Feb. 9, 1:30 p.m. ET
Where: Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, 430 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Note: The event will also be livestreamed at www.twitter.com/SenSanders and https://www.facebook.com/senatorsanders