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Railroad Workers’ Lives Revolve Entirely Around Their Jobs

By Andrew Perez - Jacobin, December 5, 2022

We spoke with a longtime BNSF conductor about the labor agreement recently imposed on railroad workers by President Biden. He says he feels betrayed by a president he thought was pro-labor and explains how his job has gotten worse over time.

Rob Kufalk is “always at the mercy of the railroad,” as his wife Mona puts it. “Our life only functions around the railroad.”

A longtime conductor for BNSF Railway, Kufalk is virtually always on call. He must be ready to get to work within ninety minutes from when the company says they need him — which can happen any time, day or night. The family lives forty-five minutes away from the terminal in La Crosse, Wisconsin, that serves as his home base. He spends a lot of time away in hotels in Chicago and Galesburg, Illinois.

Kufalk said the demands on his time have gotten worse over the years, with the industry shedding jobs to cut costs as part of its so-called “precision scheduled railroading” strategy. The situation, he said, has become unbearable since BNSF implemented a new points-based attendance policy, under which employees can be disciplined or fired for missing a call to come into work or taking an unplanned day off.

“They want us available for duty 95 percent of the time now — 24/7/365,” said Kufalk. “I try to plan for doctor’s appointments and other things and it’s almost impossible. Sometimes you just have to lay off and take the hit on the points.”

The lack of paid sick time afforded to workers was at the center of the high-stakes labor dispute between unions and giant railroad companies that came to a head last week. Through more than three years of contract negotiations, the railroads flatly refused to budge and give workers any paid sick days. The companies knew they didn’t really have to negotiate, because politicians in Washington wouldn’t risk allowing rail workers to strike and slow shipments — especially now during the holiday season — at an estimated cost to the economy of $2 billion per day.

The Case for Public Ownership of the Rails in the US

The Road to Equity: Concerns and Analysis of RUC Pricing Mechanisms

Congress Must Respect Rail Workers’ Rights

By Carl Rosen, Andrew Dinkelakr, and Mark Meinster - United Electrical Workers, November 30, 2022

Statement of the UE Officers

The current move by President Biden and Congress to impose a contract on our nation’s 115,000 railroad workers — a contract that the members of rail unions representing the majority of those workers have rejected — is an unconscionable attack on rail workers, the labor movement, and the entire U.S. working class.

The right to strike is a fundamental human right, and one of the only effective tools working people have to win justice from the corporations and capitalist oligarchs who increasingly seek to control not only our economy and our government, but every aspect of our lives.

Railroad workers are fighting for a basic human freedom — the right to stay home or see a doctor if they or their family members get sick.

The railroad companies are enormously profitable, and have seen their profits only increase during the pandemic. They can easily afford to settle a fair contract.

In addition to forcing their workers into conditions that approach involuntary servitude, the railroad companies’ endless thirst for profits has snarled up our country’s supply chain, contributing to the inflation and cost-of-living crisis that all working people are facing. Their old, polluting locomotives, which they refuse to upgrade to modern, cleaner versions, are poisoning communities near rail yards, which are primarily working-class communities of color. And they consistently oppose efforts to address climate change, putting their short-term profits above the long-term health of society, or even their own industry.

Instead of using government edicts to force railroad workers to work against their will, the President and Congress should be using the power of government to push the railroad companies to straighten out the supply chain, clean up their poor environmental record, and settle a fair contract through the collective bargaining process.

We stand in full solidarity with railroad workers and their unions, in whatever steps they take to defend their right to a decent work life, and urge all working people to do the same.

Carl Rosen
General President

Andrew Dinkelakr

Mark Meinster
​Director of Organization

'Greedy Behavior' of Profit-Hungry Rail Industry Blamed for Looming Strike

By Jake Johnson - Common Dreams, November 23, 2022

"The same wealthy rail industry executives that say they can't afford to pay their workers fair wages all had banner years in net revenue and shareholder giveaways."

A new analysis shines fresh light on U.S. railroad giants' "greedy behavior"--from gorging on their own stock to ramping up fees to pad their bottom lines--as workers struggle for basic rights and benefits in ongoing contract negotiations that could result in the first national rail strike in decades.

Updated figures compiled by the watchdog group Accountable.US and released Tuesday show that BNSF, a subsidiary of billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway that operates one of North America's largest railroad networks, saw its net income rise 4% to $4.4 billion during the first three quarters of 2022. Union Pacific, meanwhile, saw its profits jump 11% to $5.36 billion during that period.

In those nine months, Union Pacific spent nearly $8 billion on stock buybacks and dividend payouts to shareholders, Accountable.US notes.

The rail transportation giant CSX reported a 37% surge in Fiscal Year 2021 net income, the watchdog added, and the company repurchased $3.7 billion worth of its own shares during the first three quarters of this year.

Rail workers haven't fared nearly as well as industry giants and their wealthy executives and shareholders. For the past three years, many rail employees have worked under increasingly grueling conditions without a raise as management continues to resist demands for changes to draconian attendance policies, better pay, and foundational quality-of-life benefits such as paid sick leave.

"The same wealthy rail industry executives that say they can't afford to pay their workers fair wages all had banner years in net revenue and shareholder giveaways," said Liz Zelnick, a spokesperson for Accountable.US. "The big rail industry's own earnings reports show they didn't need to cut corners on safety and gouge businesses with excessive fees that get passed onto consumers. It only adds up to one thing: greed."

"For years the industry gutted investments in maintenance and equipment, and when those decisions inevitably led to supply chain bottlenecks, the industry now refuses to take any responsibility," Zelnick added. "Instead, Big Rail has opted to impose record fees and shortchange their workers while continuing to enrich a small group of investors. If Congress has to intervene, it would make no sense to reinforce greedy industry behavior that would lead to a supply chain crisis right before the holiday season."

The new analysis was published a day after the largest railroad workers union in the U.S. announced that its members voted to reject a tentative five-year contract deal negotiated with the help of the White House. While President Joe Biden hailed the proposed agreement as a victory for both the rail industry and workers, many union members reacted with outrage to the specifics of the deal, which does not include a single day of paid sick leave.

A Zero-Carbon Future for the Aviation Sector

By staff - International Transport Workers' Federation, November 15, 2022

Aviation workers are facing the twin threats of the climate emergency and the global jobs crisis. Criticism of aviation greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has created job-loss fears for many aviation workers. Although it is understood that decarbonisation will involve many changes, and that some jobs and functions may change, it is important to mitigate this as far as possible with long-term planning. Recent experience demonstrates how harmful short-term thinking can be. An average of 40 percent of aviation workers lost their jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic. As the industry recovers, it is now facing critical labour shortages with vast amounts of expertise being lost to the industry forever. Employment security for all workers can be built around a long-term employment road map.

An aviation jobs plan that assesses the industry’s long-term employment requirements must be completed as a matter of priority. It must model the mix of skills and number of workers required to implement decarbonisation measures. On workforce numbers, it should take into account retirement rates and also additional workforce demands that could create future employment opportunities, for example from proposed climate measures such as reducing flight distances and slower cruising speeds. The assessment must also include quantifiable equality measures that consider the specific needs of women and young workers, such as equal opportunities for career development, quality entry-level jobs and training pathways.

The assessment will also provide the basis for employment security, skills upgrading, and career development. Every effort must be taken to retain workers in their existing roles. Where this is not possible, the assessment must provide a road map for retraining workers for different roles within the industry. Where redeployment is necessary, it must come with equal levels of pay, skill levels, and trade union representation.

The results of the long-term employment assessment must be built into all industry road maps for decarbonisation. This is vital that the industry can retain the necessary skills and expertise and avoid short-term job cuts that will harm the industry’s ability to conduct the transition most effectively.

Download a copy of this publication here (PDF).

Our plan to achieve a Just Transition for seafarers: from the Maritime Just Transition Task Force

Solidarity with Railroad Workers

Railway Workers Are Angry--and Rightfully So

By Michelle Chen - The Progressive, October 29, 2022

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."

Railroad Workers Threaten to Strike and Call for Public Takeover of the Rails

By Mike Ludwig - Truthout, October 22, 2022

A potential showdown between organized labor and Wall Street looms over the world of freight trains: An influential railroad workers group is urging fellow union members to reject a tentative labor agreement that has prevented an industry-wide strike, and to fight for public ownership of railroads. Negotiations are tense, and the unions are telling members that every vote counts.

Fearing further stress on supply chains and the economy ahead of the midterm elections, President Joe Biden convened an emergency board to negotiate a tentative agreement between rail carriers and unions threatening a nationwide strike. Railroad Workers United (RWU), an advocacy group of rank-and-file workers, recently called on fellow union members to reject the tentative agreement in a vote scheduled for early December, and to strike if necessary.

The tentative agreement announced in September by two major unions calls for an immediate 14 percent wage increase, but concerns over working conditions, health insurance and medical leave remain. SMART, a union representing sheet metal, air and rail workers, recently told its members that the tentative agreement is still being finalized, and it will be up to the rank and file to vote yes or no on the deal.

A nationwide rail strike would incapacitate shipping and force rail companies and the public to contend with the demands of railroad workers, who say their employers have maximized profits while safety and working conditions deteriorate. BNSF Railway, one of the top freight rail operators, made $23 billion in revenue in 2021 alone.

While RWU is urging the rank-and-file to fight for a better contract with their employers, the group says the ultimate solution to the problems raised at the negotiating table is a public takeover of the railroads for freight trains.


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