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Floor Speech

Date: Sept. 14, 2022
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. SANDERS. Mr. President, I am really delighted that my colleague from Florida is suddenly concerned about transfers of wealth--I really am--because, as he may or may not know, over the last 30 years, there has been a massive transfer of wealth. The problem is, it has gone in the wrong direction.

We are talking about the shrinking of the middle class. We are talking about trillions of dollars going to the top 1 percent. And we are ending up in a situation today where you have billionaires and you have large corporations that don't pay a nickel in Federal taxes.

I always find it interesting that whenever Congress does something-- ever so rarely--that benefits working people and low-income people, there is an uproar: Oh my God, you are helping young people and working people; you are helping poor people. What a terrible thing to do.

But there is massive silence when you give gigantic tax breaks to the 1 percent or large corporations that are now doing phenomenally well.

So my colleague from Florida is interested in the transfer of wealth? Let's work together. Let's make sure that the working class in this country--not just the billionaires--get a fair shake. Let's help young people. Let's start canceling the student debt that we should have done years ago.
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Mr. SANDERS. And I will object. Let me thank Senator Burr for actually reading my tweets. Much appreciated.

Just a correction of the record. I think Senator Wicker mentioned before that a number of unions had approved this agreement. As I think everybody knows, there cannot be an approval of a union agreement unless the workers themselves vote on it. They have not voted on it. So, in fact, there has been no approval by any union of the agreement. But before I go to the rail situation, I did want to say a few words and put this issue into a broader context, and then I will get to the rail situation.

As I think most Americans know, 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--while these people put their lives on the line and died by the thousands, the billionaire class--the people on top--saw a $2 trillion increase in their wealth. Workers died by the tens of thousands. People on top became much richer.

Further, as healthcare costs soar, we have over 70 million Americans who are either uninsured or underinsured, and, in addition, the United States remains the only major country on Earth not to guarantee paid family and medical leave. That is the broad issue that we have got to look at as we look at the situation in the rail industry.

As I understand it, it is not accurate to say that the President of the United States has agreed to what the PEB has come up with. They have come up with a proposal. But right now, as we speak, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is currently meeting with the rail union's end management in trying to forge an agreement. And I happen to wish them well. And I hope that those meetings lead to an agreement that is fair and that is just.

But let us make no mistake about what is happening in the rail industry right now--and I did not hear one word of that from my Republican colleagues--and that is that the rail industry has seen huge profits in recent years and last year alone made a recordbreaking $20 billion in profit. Last year, the rail industry made $20 billion in profit.

And let me also mention that the CEOs of many of these rail 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, what is happening in the rail industry is what is happening all over this country. Corporate profits are soaring, and 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 railworkers risked their lives to keep the economy going, Mr. Buffett became $33 billion richer.

In the midst of all of those profit increases for the industry, in the midst of huge compensation packages for the CEOs of the industry, in the midst of increased wealth for those who own these companies, what is going on for the workers? I think that is a fair question to ask, if we are in the midst of negotiations. What is going on for the workers? How are they doing?

It turns out that the key issue in the current negotiations is not about salaries. Apparently, there is an agreement on that. The key issue that is being contested is about the working conditions in the industry which are absolutely unacceptable and are 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.

In case you missed it, let me repeat it: You are entitled to zero sick days.

What that means is that if you as a worker 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 crazy is that?

Let me remind you of what you undoubtedly know, 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 just gave birth to your child. It doesn't matter. If you do not come into work, no matter what the reason, we in the industry, we the bosses, have the right to fire you.

Really? Do these conditions really exist in the United States of America, the wealthiest country on Earth in the year 2022?

I do wonder if the CEO of the railroad or other top executives at that railroad--I wonder if they would get fired if they got sick or if they had a medical emergency in their families. I doubt very much that they would get fired.

Further, I should add, that quite sensibly the Federal Government guarantees 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave to its workers. That is what we do as a Federal Government. So if you are an employee at the Department of Transportation in the United States, sitting behind a desk, you are, appropriately--I believe in this very much--guaranteed 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. That is if you work at the Department of Transportation. But if you are an engineer running a train with tons of freight behind you--a very dangerous job--you get zero sick leave.

Now, that may make sense to somebody, but 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 coworkers and everyone else who is around them.

As part of the contract negotiations, the railworkers are asking for 15 paid sick days. This 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 1 year of paid sick leave at 100 percent of their salary. In the UK, workers are entitled up to 28 weeks of paid sick leave.

The railworkers in the United States are not asking for 1 year of paid sick leave. They are not asking for 6 months of paid sick leave. They are asking for 15 days--15 days. The rail industry has said, as I understand it, that they just cannot afford to do that, just don't have the money. They say it would cost too much money to provide their workers with any paid sick days. They just can't afford to do it. Well, let's see. They made over $20 billion in profits last year, and they provide their CEOs with huge compensation packages.

And here is something else that everyone should know who is getting involved in this issue: Last year, the rail 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 is where we are. It turns out that guaranteeing 15 paid sick days to rail workers would cost the industry a grand total of $688 million a year. That is less than 3.5 percent of their annual profits. It seems to me if four major rail carriers can afford to spend over $18 billion a year on stock buybacks and dividends, please, please don't tell me they cannot afford to guarantee 15 paid sick days to their workers and allow these workers to have a reasonable quality of life, which they don't enjoy today.

If the Burr-Wicker resolution passed, railworkers would be entitled to zero paid sick days and zero unpaid sick days. That is clearly unacceptable.

The outrage over the lack of paid sick leave is not the only issue being negotiated. The railworkers of this country are sick and tired of unreliable scheduling, which is having a horrendous impact on their personal and family lives. In America today, railworkers are on call for up to 14 consecutive days, 12 hours a day. In fact, it is not uncommon for many railworkers to be on call virtually 24 hours a day with the requirement to report to work within 90 minutes for shifts that can last nearly 80 hours.

My office has heard from railworkers who received calls from management at 2 in the morning requiring them to show up for work at 4 a.m. Again, this is not only unacceptable; it 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, the Burr-Wicker resolution could allow the freight rail industry to substantially increase the cost workers would have to pay for healthcare.

Let us 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 6 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.

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 are sick. Make sure that your workers have 15 paid sick days and adequate time off to rest and spend with their families. At a time when you, the industry, are making recordbreaking 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 rail 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 and not just the head of large multinational corporations.

Railworkers have a right to strike for reliable schedules. They have a right to strike for paid sick days. They have a right to strike for safe working conditions. Railworkers have a right to strike for these benefits. The Burr-Wicker resolution would take these fundamental rights away from workers. We cannot allow that to happen. Therefore, I object.

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Mr. SANDERS. My understanding, I say to my colleague from Mississippi, is that as we speak, the Secretary of Labor is in a room-- or has been today, with management and labor in trying to forge an agreement. So what is going on right now is they are trying to reach an agreement which is amenable to both sides, so that is a work in process.

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Mr. SANDERS. Would you like to bet on that?

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Mr. SANDERS. I was not aware Senator Burr was a railroad worker, so let me, just to set the record straight, tell you what the railroad workers themselves understand the situation is. We might want to listen to those who live the experience. So let me very briefly quote you a statement from Jeremy Ferguson, president of SMART Transportation Division, and Dennis Pierce, president, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, Teamsters Rail Conference.

This is what they say about their working conditions:

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. 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. No working-class American should be treated with this level of harassment in the workplace for simply becoming ill or going to a routine medical visit.

That is from the unions themselves.

So let us be clear. I don't think anybody wants a strike or wants a lockout. We hope that a settlement will be reached in the next day. But, in my view, if we are going to reach a settlement, I would hope that the railroads, which are making huge profits, start treating their workers with the respect that they deserve.

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