US freight railroad workers are close to striking over claims that grueling schedules and poor working conditions have been driving employees out of the industry over the past several years.
Heated negotiations over a new union contract between railroad corporations and 150,000-member-strong labor unions have been ongoing for nearly three years. A “cooling off” period imposed by the Biden administration after it issued recommendations to settle the dispute ends on Friday. If no deal is reached, unions are threatening industrial action – the first since 1992 – and workers say they will quit an industry already facing staff shortages.
The consequences of a strike would be severe. Rail moves close to 40% of the US’s long-distance trade and a strike could cost the US economy $2bn a day, according to a recently issued Association of American Railroads report, disrupting travel, commutes and the shipment of commodities and other goods across the country.
But workers argue the industry is in crisis. Between November 2018 and December 2020, the railroad industry lost 40,000 jobs in the US, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The US railroad industry’s workforce dropped from more than 1 million workers in the 1950s to fewer than 150,000 in 2022.
The cost-cutting has contributed to big windfalls at BNSF and Union Pacific, the two largest railroad corporations in North America, which reported record profits in 2021. BNSF is owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate. US railroads have paid out $196bn in stock buybacks and dividends to shareholders since 2010.
“The job is just really becoming fewer people doing more work faster,” said Ross Grooters, a locomotive engineer for Union Pacific in Iowa and co-chair of Railroad Workers United. “We’ve seen in this country all workers getting more and more squeezed.”
“These railroads are making billions of dollars. In the past, we’ve been well compensated for being on call 24/7, 365 days a year. That’s been eroded over the course of my career in the last two decades to where it’s just not appealing enough to attract people into the workplace,” said Grooters.
Labor cuts, lack of paid days off, precision scheduling systems to reduce headcounts, disciplinary attendance policies that issue points against workers for any time taken off and unfair and punishing on-call schedules have made it more difficult to continue working in the railroad industry, said Grooters, and workers claim these issues aren’t being addressed in proposed new union contract agreements.
“When I first was hired out on the railroad my paychecks seemed to stretch a lot further than it does today. I don’t think that’s a unique experience for railroad workers. We really need to stop that trend. And hopefully, we railroad workers can help fight back against profiteering from the richest people in this country,” said Grooters.
With talks stalling, the Biden administration convened a presidential emergency board (PEB) earlier this year that issued recommendations for a settlement on 16 August. Biden and his economic team are pushing unions and companies to reach an agreement before Friday’s deadline, the New York Times reported.
Ten of the 12 labor unions currently negotiating new contracts have reached tentative agreements for workers to vote on, but the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (Smart), which represent half of railroad union workers, have said workers will strike if attendance and scheduling issues aren’t 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 Railway Carmen voted to ratify their contracts Wednesday. IAM did agree to delay any strike until 29 September, the union said.
Workers at several other unions still have to vote on the tentative agreements, and some have expressed criticisms that the recommendations don’t adequately address staffing and scheduling issues.
“The PEB punted on just about every single issue, and left people feeling kind of betrayed and kind of vacant, because of the discontent on the railroad right now,” said Ron Kaminkow, general secretary of Railroad Workers United who currently works as an Amtrak engineer in Reno, Nevada, and serves as vice-president of BLET Local 51.
Kaminkow said many railroad workers don’t have any paid time off at all, with the PEB recommending just one added day of paid time off. Workers are currently on call consistently throughout the year, making a life-work balance near impossible and contributing to fatigue issues, illnesses, job safety and discontent among the workforce.
“It’s our speculation that if this contract is approved and the PEB recommendations form the basis for a tentative agreement, and this is what we end up with, you will probably see thousands of workers in train engine service who will wait to get the best paid lump sum settlement and then they’ll quit. So it doesn’t solve any of the problems that the industry is facing,” Kaminkow added. “I’ve worked in the industry 26 years, and it’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 under the new contract negotiations.
BLET and Smart issued a joint statement on 11 September criticizing railroad corporations for warning shippers of embargoes on certain shipments ahead of the end of the federally mandated cooling off period, claiming the railroad industry is using supply chain and economic concerns to try to impose a bad contract on the unions that doesn’t address the attendance and scheduling concerns of workers.
A survey conducted by Railroad Workers United on the PEB recommendations received responses from 3,162 railroad workers, with over 90% of respondents saying they would vote against tentative agreements based on the recommendations and would approve of a strike after the federally mandated cooling off period.
Railroad workers have emphasized their grueling schedules, a disciplinary attendance system and lack of paid days off, and workers constantly having to be on call to report to work within two hours or less as major points of criticism of the PEB recommendations that failed to address these issues.
Under the Railway Labor Act, railroad corporations and labor unions have to adhere to federally mandated cooling off periods to try to resolve labor disputes. Once the cooling off period ends, on 16 September, a variety of scenarios could result, either through strikes or lockouts of workers by railroad corporations – or Congress could act to impose its own settlement or extend the cooling off period to continue negotiations and avoid any disruptions to interstate commerce.
“If Congress imposes the results of the PEB, or imposes a bad contract down our throat without addressing the attendance policy, or quality of life issues, or our taxable meal issues, without addressing any of that, then people are just going to leave. They already are, but people are just going to continue 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 to not quit, and that could result in an even bigger effect on the economy. Congress needs to think long and hard before they force it within the strike, because if they do, it will have a much bigger strike as people resign and leave the industry,” he said.