labor The Economy Breaks Down on Day One of a Rail Strike
In mid-September, the nation’s railway carriers were locked in tense negotiations with several rail labor unions, and a rail strike—a potential economic catastrophe for the country and global supply chains—loomed on the horizon.
In the final days before the strike deadline, the Department of Labor intervened through an arbitration process under an emergency panel commissioned by the White House. An eleventh-hour tentative agreement emerged days later, narrowly averting a work stoppage for SMART Transportation Division, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, which represent about 60,000 workers together (several other rail unions had negotiated similar contract proposals earlier). But the rail workers still have a long way to go in their struggle for a fair contract; many workers are unsatisfied with the proposed agreement and say they will vote it down, and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen voted October 26 to reject the proposed deal.
The main frustrations workers have commonly expressed center largely around a stressful on-call scheduling system; many say unpredictable schedules, combined with understaffing, undermine their family lives and make it difficult even to take sick leave without being penalized.
Railroad Workers United, a rank-and-file group representing workers from multiple unions and trades in the industry, has urged members to vote down the tentative agreement, stating that it “does nothing to address nor rectify the underlying causes of worker disillusionment and dissatisfaction with their working conditions. Short staffing, long hours, harsh attendance policies, poor scheduling practices, a lack of time off work, and a generally inferior quality of work life would continue under this contract if ratified.”
Last month, I spoke with Hugh Sawyer, a thirty-four-year veteran train engineer based in the Atlanta area, and treasurer of Railroad Workers United, about the working conditions that have been a perpetual source of stress and outrage for many rail workers. He explained that as part of a “pool,” a system of distributing jobs on an ad-hoc basis, he is “on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.” While federal labor laws require that he get forty-eight hours rest after every six straight days of work, Sawyer is always subject to being called up, even on an assigned off day.
The erratic scheduling wreaks havoc on rail workers’ lives, and the country’s rail carriers are pushing in this latest round of contract talks to maintain and even intensify this system of on-call work assignments:
“I can be called out an hour before my off day starts….I don’t know that I’m gonna be off on my assigned off days. Therefore, I can’t make doctor’s appointments and that sort of thing or make any real plans for a specific day….
“I think it’s become a big issue for particularly the younger people. The railroads went far beyond what they should have in cutting train crews, and now they want us just to be available to work at will with very little rest at home or little off time. And I don’t know what it is about the pandemic, but it’s set something off across this country. People have reprioritized their lives and realized that these jobs, be it in the railroad industry or wherever, are not the end all, and that, you know, we want time at home and for a life outside the railroad. I think that’s the biggest issue.
“The carriers, on the other hand, have decided that we’re just blue-collar labor to be mistreated. They don’t care about us having a lifestyle outside of the railroad, and they don’t want to pay us for that, [although] historically railroad workers have been well paid, and part of that has been for the home life that they sacrifice. But my wages have remained essentially stagnant, if we take into consideration inflation and what have you, for my entire career. And now it’s becoming untenable for a lot of people.”
Sawyer also pointed out that for many workers, the main point of contention in the contract talks is not monetary compensation, but rather, control of their time on the job and the consequences for not following whatever schedule is imposed on a worker in a given week:
“Our wages are important; we need real wage increases. And I don’t want to belittle that because certainly that’s the only reason you go to work, to make money. But with the strain on the system, the strain that our bosses have put on us—listen, if I mark off sick on the weekend, and I go to the doctor, I go to urgent care. And they say, I’ve got the flu. And I have a doctor’s note saying, ‘He’s got the flu. He’s got to be off for three or four days.’ That means nothing. I am disciplined because I have taken a day off on, or more than one day off, on the weekend….I can mark off one calendar day in a ninety-day period on the weekend without being disciplined. And if I’m off for five minutes into a second day, that counts as me being off for two days. It’s ridiculous. And that’s the part that outrages me: here's the doctor's note. I’m not just saying I’m sick, I’m proving to you I’m sick, and you’re still going to discipline me for it? They have this progressive discipline program, and you could ultimately lose your job.”
The miserable scheduling system may drive workers to vote no on the proposed agreement in the coming weeks, triggering another round of negotiations. But a protracted strike would still be unlikely. The last railway strike was in 1992 and lasted only about a day before Congress intervened to halt it. The Railway Labor Act, the product of an era when labor unrest on the railways frequently turned into bloodbaths, broadly restricts industrial actions and allows government intervention to force a resolution to a collective-bargaining impasse. Sawyer said:
“We’re prohibited from going on strike in reality, because we’re so important to the economy. The economy breaks down, really, on day one of a rail strike. And that’s why there’s always this pressure to force something, force the carriers and the unions to reach some sort of agreement so that the logistics network will keep going.”
He noted that rail carriers have tried to leverage fear about a potential rail strike during the thirty-day “cooling off period” in which the unions and carriers agree to not strike as they negotiate, by embargoing some rail shipments—a move that unions called “corporate extortion.”
“By law, I can’t go on strike for this thirty-day cooling off period. And by law, the railroads can’t lock us out for thirty days. But nobody thought about, ‘Well, hell, we’ll just lock out the customers and prevent them from shipping freight and put that pressure on Congress’…to impose an agreement upon us.”
But Sawyer is also bitter about the way his union has positioned itself in the negotiations, saying that “what we presented to the presidential emergency board was a lot less than what we were originally asking for at the bargaining table.” Both the presidential emergency board’s recommendations, and the last-minute tentative agreement that was later reached, provide for wage increases over the next several years, but largely ignore the key scheduling and paid leave issues.
In terms of what he would like his union to pursue, Sawyer said that what rail workers are asking for is simple—a schedule that establishes a full-time 40-hour workweek, giving them time to live their lives outside of work. For the younger workers he talks to, he added:
“They want to know they’re going to be off one weekend a month. You know, fifty-two weeks in the year. So they want thirteen weekends. And I think [the public] need to understand, most workers start out with 104 off days. It’s called the weekend. Railroad workers start off with nothing. And so I don’t think it’s outrageous that they [give workers, especially] the younger people, off one weekend out of the month, where they know they’re going to be off, there’s no ifs, ands or buts….And that seems like a reasonable thing to ask for.
“I think we need to establish what a full-time worker is. [Federal law] establishes that a full-time worker is one who works thirty hours or more per week, and that language explicitly excludes railroad workers or people covered under the Railroad Labor Act. So we need to have that. That needs to be the first line of the contract: what a full-time worker is. Because right now, the railroads just say, ‘A full-time worker is one who answers the phone every time we call.’ And that’s got to change.”
When any of the twelve railroad unions reject their proposed deal, that could trigger another round of negotiations, federal intervention, and ultimately a strike that would paralyze the railroad system nationwide, as other unions would not cross a picket line. The October 26 no vote by the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen will restart the union’s talks with the carriers and boosts the possibility of a strike. Earlier in October, another union, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, rejected a similar tentative agreement. That means that railroad workers might strike at the end of that union’s cooling off period on November 19.
Whether or not the trains grind to a halt next month, rank-and-filers are signaling a growing wave of anger, not just with the bargaining process, but with an industry that has pursued profit and efficiency by driving workers to a breaking point.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer for The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent magazine and a co-producer of Dissent’s “Belabored” podcast. Find her on Twitter at @meeshellchen