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Rail workers service tracks in Chicago

Workers service the tracks at the Metra/BNSF railroad yard outside of downtown on September 13, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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

"Warren Buffett, the owner of BNSF Railway's parent company, worth $100 billion, must intervene," said the Vermont senator. "During the pandemic, Mr. Buffett became $36 billion richer."

Jake Johnson

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."

"The railroad industry, which made $20 billion in profits last year, cannot continue to deny workers paid sick leave."

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.

"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."

"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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