US freight rail workers are set to strike over allegations that grueling hours and poor working conditions have driven employees out of the industry in recent years.
Tough negotiations over a new union contract between the rail companies and the 150,000-member unions have been going on for almost three years. A “cooling off” period imposed by the Biden administration after it issued recommendations to settle the dispute ends Friday. If no deal is reached, unions are threatening industrial action – the first since 1992 – and workers say they will leave an industry already facing staff shortages.
The consequences of a strike would be serious. Rail moves nearly 40% of US long-distance trade and a strike could cost the US economy $2 billion a day, according to a recently released report by the Association of American Railroads, disrupting travel, journeys and the dispatch of goods and other goods across the country.
But the workers argue that the industry is in crisis. Between November 2018 and December 2020, the railroad industry lost 40,000 jobs in the United States, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The U.S. railroad industry’s workforce has shrunk from over a million workers in the 1950s to less than 150,000 by 2022.
Cost cutting has contributed to big windfalls for BNSF and Union Pacific, North America’s two largest railroads, which reported record profits in 2021. BNSF is owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate . US railroads have paid out $196 billion in stock buybacks and dividends to shareholders since 2010.
“Work really gets fewer people doing more work faster,” said Ross Grooters, locomotive engineer for Union Pacific in Iowa and co-chairman of Railroad Workers United. “We have seen in this country all the workers being more and more in a hurry.”
“These railroads bring in billions of dollars. In the past, we were paid well for being available 24/7, 365 days a year. It’s eroded over my career over the past two decades to the point where it’s just not appealing enough to draw people into the workplace,” Grooters said.
Workforce cuts, lack of paid days off, precision scheduling systems to downsize, disciplinary attendance policies that award workers points for any time off, and on-call schedules unfair and punitive rules have made it harder to continue working in the rail industry,” Grooters said, and workers say these issues are not addressed in the proposed new collective agreements.
“When I was first hired on the railroad, my paychecks seemed to stretch a lot further than they do today. I don’t think it’s a unique experience for railroad workers. We have to really stop this trend. And I hope that we railroad workers can help fight the profiteering of the wealthiest people in this country,” Grooters said.
With talks stalled, the Biden administration convened an Emergency Presidential Committee (PEB) earlier this year that issued recommendations for a settlement on Aug. 16. Biden and his economics team are pushing unions and businesses to reach an agreement before Friday’s deadline, The New York Times reported.
Ten of the 12 unions currently negotiating new contracts have tentative agreements workers can vote on, but the Brotherhood of Engineers and Locomotive Workers (BLET) and the International Association of Sheet Metal Workers, Air, Rail and Transportation (Smart), which make up half of unionized railway workers, said workers would strike if attendance and scheduling issues are not resolved.
Nearly 5,000 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) voted on Wednesday to reject the tentative agreement, the union said. Members of the Transportation Communications Union and the Brotherhood of Carmen Railroads voted Wednesday to ratify their contracts. The IAM agreed to delay any strike action until September 29, the union said.
Workers from several other unions have yet to vote on tentative agreements, and some have voiced criticism that the recommendations do not adequately address staffing and scheduling issues.
“The PEB has addressed just about every issue and has left people feeling a little betrayed and a little vacant, because of the discontent on the railroad right now,” said Ron Kaminkow, general secretary of the Railroad Workers. United currently working as Amtrak. engineer in Reno, Nevada, and is vice president of BLET Local 51.
Kaminkow said many railway workers have no paid leave, with the PEB recommending just one extra day of paid leave. Workers are currently on call all year round, making work-life balance nearly impossible and contributing to issues of fatigue, illness, workplace safety and workforce dissatisfaction .
“We assume that if this contract is approved and the recommendations of the PEB form the basis of an agreement in principle, and that is what we end up with, you will probably see thousands of workers in the train engine department who expect to be paid more. lump sum settlement, then they will resign. So it doesn’t solve any of the problems the industry is facing,” Kaminkow added. “I worked in the industry for 26 years, and that’s – I never thought I’d see it like this.”
BLET members voted 99.5% in favor of authorizing a strike in July 2022, representing around 23,000 workers in new contract negotiations.
BLET and Smart issued a joint statement Sept. 11 criticizing the railroads for notifying shippers of embargoes on certain shipments before the end of the federally mandated cooling-off period, saying the railroad industry uses the chain of supply and economic concerns to try to impose a bad contract on the unions that does not address workers’ concerns about attendance and hours.
A Railroad Workers United survey of PEB recommendations received responses from 3,162 railroad workers, with more than 90% of respondents saying they would vote against tentative agreements based on the recommendations and approve a strike after the strike period. reflection imposed by the federal government.
Railway workers pointed to their grueling schedules, a disciplinary attendance system and lack of paid days off, and workers must be constantly on call to report to work within two hours or less as the main points of criticism of the PEB recommendations. who did not respond to these problems.
Under the Railway Labor Act, railway companies and unions must observe federally mandated cooling-off periods in an attempt to resolve labor disputes. Once the cooling off period ends on September 16, various scenarios could result, either with strikes or lockouts of workers by the railroad companies – or Congress could act to impose its own settlement or extend the cooling off period. to continue negotiations and avoid any disruption of interstate commerce.
“If Congress imposes PEB results, or imposes a bad contract on us without addressing attendance policy, or quality of life issues, or our taxable meal issues, without fixing any of that, then people will all just leave. They already are, but people are going to keep leaving the industry,” said Michael Paul Lindsey, a locomotive engineer for Union Pacific in Idaho for 17 years.
“They can try to force us out of a strike, but they can’t force us not to quit, and that could have an even bigger effect on the economy. Congress needs to think long and hard before forcing it into the strike, because if it does, there will be a much bigger strike because people will quit and leave the industry,” he said.