Rail Workers Shafted Again


Photo by Acton Crawford

Imagine having no set schedule at your workplace, and instead having to report to work within 2 hours of receiving a call from your employer. You could be working 12 hour days for weeks before your next day off.

If you happen to be sick, you still better report in or lose wages. If you are injured on the job, you may be inclined to cover it up because your employer will do everything in their power to put the blame on you. If there are unsafe working conditions, you better keep your mouth shut, because if you speak up your employer is going to look for a pretext to fire you.

Those are the conditions under which railroad workers live, and the backdrop of the current labor dispute in which workers once again were shafted. This time it was by the Biden Administration and Congress, which just voted to forbid railroad unions to strike, and imposed a settlement that unions had voted against. An overwhelming majority on both sides of the aisle voted days before a cooling off period ended, which could have resulted in a strike during the holiday shipping period. The politicians said they feared damage to the economy. They had another option to extend negotiations another 60 days, but voted it down.

Though the settlement does provide a 24% wage increase over 5 years, that pales in comparison to inflation running around double that rate. Meanwhile, the railroad industry is making record profits. In 2001 the 4 major railroads had profit margins around 15%. By 2021 that soared to 41%. Railroads are the most profitable industry in the U.S. Though it actually carries less freight than a few years back, the ultra-concentrated industry has monopoly pricing power in many parts of the country. And it has cut workforces to the bone. Class One railroads, on which most freight is carried, cut 45,000 workers or 29% of jobs over the last 6 years. This combined with new scheduling techniques has led to supply chain bottlenecks over recent years, as well as an overworked labor force more prone to injuries and sickness.

The denial of a union demand for 7 days paid sick leave is at the core of the current labor dispute. Railroads were unwilling to give up the estimated $321 million it would cost each year, less than 2% of their profits. Congress voted for a separate bill to provide that leave, but it did not gain enough Senate votes to reach the 60 votes needed to stop a filibuster. The bill was a fig leaf to cover Democratic Party politician betrayal of the unions because it was obvious a separate bill would go down to defeat. It was of a piece with Democrat politician backstabbing that goes back to 1990s free trade agreements that undermined the working class, setting up the current reactionary backlash.

“This one-two punch from the two political parties is despicable,” said Jason Doering, general secretary of Railroad Workers United. Rail has no industry union, so RWU acts as a bridge between the craft unions that represent rail workers. “Politicians are happy to voice platitudes and heap praise upon us for our heroism throughout the pandemic, the essential nature of our work, the difficult and dangerous and demanding conditions of our jobs. Yet when the steel hits the rail, they back the powerful and wealthy Class One rail carriers every time.”

Working on the railroad

Back in the middle of the last decade I was working on the railroad. Not literally, of course, but I was drawn into involvement with railroads through both engaging in a tripod blockade of an oil train at BNSF Everett, Washington Delta Yard, and co-authoring Solutionary Rail – A people-powered campaign to electrify America’s railroads and open corridors to a clean energy future with Bill Moyer. As executive director of Backbone Campaign Bill had pulled together a team of rail experts to look at options for rail’s future. The project and book were intended to provide railroads with alternatives to the bulk coal and oil shipping that I and many others were protesting.  

Those projects drew me into contact with rail workers and labor leaders who related the kind of horror stories that opened this article. One was Ron Kaminkow, then RWU general secretary. RWU was a member of the Solutionary Rail team, and our book carries his own personal experience working as a brakeman.

“[You] get a call, usually two hours before scheduled on-duty time. You’re expected to be rested, sober, and ready to take that call, day or night, and report to the on-duty location within two hours, and be ready to work for up to 12 hours. The call could come at midnight tonight, then 3 pm the next day, 8 am after that . . . never knowing when you’ll be called, when you’ll finish, how many hours you can rest, or when you’ll return home. You’re working and resting around the clock; it’s completely unscheduled.

“Railroad companies want you to believe they’re interested in safety. From the company’s perspective, accidents and injuries are the result of workers’ behaviors. Workers know they’re caused by hazards like fatigue, short staffing, task overload, excessively long and heavy trains, poor lighting, uneven walking surfaces, and faulty equipment. The railroad shifts the blame for accidents and injuries from the carrier to the workforce, from hazards to behaviors. They blame worker behavior for every accident.”

Jen Wallis, who worked as a switchman and conductor, was injured in 2008 due to actions by an inexperienced engineer. It took a year before she could return to work. She filed a claim against the railroad after retaliating against her for reporting the injury. She won her case but was left with only a pittance, and lost her home in the process.

“When rail workers get injured, the company says we did something wrong. Compensation is based on our liability versus the company’s liability. Naturally, the company prefers to lay most of the liability on us . . . Because the system punishes workers for accidents, people who get injured on the job will say that they did it at home, so they don’t lose their jobs. They’ve created such a chilling effect that workers are afraid to report injuries or hazards, so how does this make for a safer workplace? Those of us who decide to fight give up our privacy, and we experience retaliation.”

Wallis added, “I stay with this job because I love the work and camaraderie. It takes a certain kind of person to do this – a person willing to be on call 24/7, miss birthdays or anniversaries. We endure harassment from management. Your whole family must sacrifice.”

Solutionary Rail made RWU’s fair deal for rail labor part of its vision:

+ Bargain in good faith with the unions and share the wealth.

+ Establish real safety programs focused on hazard elimination, as opposed to “behavior-based safety” programs that shift the blame for accidents and injuries onto workers.

+ Preserve and protect the established minimum of two-crew members on every train crew, to avoid stress, information overload, and the absence of back-up in emergencies.

+ Recognize the need for paid sick time for train and engine service personnel, a practice that has come to most industries.

+ Put an end to crew fatigue by providing scheduled days off, as opposed to unlimited on-call requirements to which workers are now subject.

+ Stop the use of invasive and intimidating technology such as inward-facing  cameras.

+ Stop excessive discipline and firings.

A new track for rail

The Solutionary Rail team looked to rail’s phenomenal potential for providing fast freight service and high-speed passenger rail, displacing much truck, car and plane travel with a form of transportation that uses energy far more efficiently. Electrified rail powered by renewables could offer those services with minimal climate pollution, while rail corridors could provide transmission links between cities and remote wind and sun resources.

The great obstacle to this vision is the railroads themselves. They want to emphasize bulk commodity and container trains while sluffing off less profitable mixed freight to trucks. They grimace in horror at “passengerization” of their lines, and resist the up-front investments needed to electrify them, even though long-term costs would be lower. In all these cases, the obstacle is the same, a shareholder value mentality that puts prime emphasis on short-term profits. Since 2010 the top 4 railroads have paid out $121 billion in dividends and stock buybacks, compared to $17 billion from 2001-8. For the whole industry the payout since 2010 is $196 billion.

Thus, under the current pattern of ownership, it is unlikely that anything like the Solutionary Rail vision could become reality. More and more, people are being driven to the conclusion that the railroads must be nationalized. There is a powerful case. Monopoly pricing power is pushing shipping costs through the roof while service deteriorates and long-term investments in rail infrastructure suffer for the sake of the quarterly bottom line. Not to mention the horrendous conditions for the people who have to make it all work.

The Staggers Rail Act of 1980 is widely regarded as a lost opportunity. In response to widespread railroad bankruptcies as they faced new competition from highways and aviation in the 1970s, the Staggers Act deregulated the railroads. It was a revolution which eliminated one of the earliest federal regulatory systems, that created by the 1887 Interstate Commerce Act. The door was opened for the radical consolidation which has created today’s rail oligopoly, with BNSF and Union Pacific dominating the western U.S. while CSX and Norfolk Southern rule the east.

Many believe that the Staggers Act should have instead been the occasion for nationalization, at least of the lines if not the operators. Rail is, after all, a vital public utility, and it is clear that the bottom line orientation of private ownership works against railroads realizing their full public benefit. Notably, this includes the failure to provide a near-zero climate pollution option for transportation. In addition, by pushing mixed freight onto trucks, which cause most road damage, the rail industry is leaching off of public transportation infrastructure.  For railroads to reach their full potential, public ownership is required.

RWU endorsed the concept in October. “RWU supports the public ownership of the rail infrastructure of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, to be operated henceforth in the public interest, placed at the service of the people of all three nations . . . RWU urges the rail union leadership of North America to take a similar stand, thereby providing the leadership necessary to see such a proposal through to fruition.”

“On-time performance is in the toilet, shipper complaints are at all-time highs,” RWU argued. “Passenger trains are chronically late, commuter services are threatened, and the rail industry is hostile to practically any passenger train expansion. The workforce has been decimated, as jobs have been eliminated, consolidated, and contracted out, ushering in a new previously unheard-of era where workers can neither be recruited nor retained. Locomotive, rail car, and infrastructure maintenance has been cut back. Health and safety has been put at risk. Morale is at an all-time low. The ongoing debacle in national contract bargaining sees the carriers – after decades of record profits and record low Operating Ratios – refusing to make even the slightest concessions to the workers who – contrary to what the Class Ones may state – have made them their riches.”

RWU concluded, “Since the North American private rail industry has shown itself incapable of doing the job, it is time for this invaluable transportation infrastructure – like the other transport modes – to be brought under public ownership.”

The crucial role of labor struggles

Some of the greatest labor struggles in U.S. history took place around the railroads. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 nearly shut down the country, as did the Pullman Strike of 1894. Today, even as much high-profile labor organizing has moved to service industry outfits such as Starbucks and Amazon, the struggle by rail workers for humane working conditions has brought focus back to labor’s traditional base. Because transportation jobs could not be shipped overseas, labor has retained a strength in that sector it has lost in other industries.

Restoring labor’s strength in all sectors is crucial to creating a just society. The decline of labor has been accompanied by the rise of radical wealth and income inequality, and has fostered the growth of right-wing politics. Labor serves the broad interest of people, while business in the end serves the bottom line. That’s just the nature of a profit-driven system. So, looking at rail as an example, everything management is doing has an internal logic, while the negative social and environmental impacts are shoved onto others.

The Democrats, in their long undermining of labor, down to the strike ban just passed, are cutting their own throats. In the recent vote they should have at least gone for the negotiations extension rather than trying to cram a settlement workers voted against down their throats. Reducing their labor base puts Democrats increasingly under the thumb of corporate donors, who will push them to serve that business bottom line. We need the counterbalance of labor to get anything close to a just and sustainable society.

And we need a strong labor and social movement to make the kind of profound changes needed to overcome our mounting and interlocked crises of climate and social justice. Railroad nationalization is a prime example. The latest labor struggle underscores the need to put railroads on a new track, as well as our economy and society as a whole. We need to put the public interest in the engineer’s cab.

This first appeared in The Raven.  

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