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What in the World is going on at CSX and Amtrak?

By John Paul Wright - Railroad Workers United, February 7, 2018

The latest round of tragic incidents at CSX and AMTRAK is causing a number of news outlets to reach out to Railroad Workers United to gain a rank & file worker perspective. In the past few months, RWU has been contacted by The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press and several other news outlets, including a business journal that is based in none other than CSX’s hometown of Jacksonville, FL.

The Voice of the Working Railroader is what is Needed

The questions are wide ranging, understandably well intentioned, and urgent. The common complaint from the journalists that we have talked to is that they lack the perspective from union officials and working railroaders. Many of the journalists report that the company press agents as well as the unions are only willing to release broad generalized statements that offer no real content that would help them with their investigative reporting. RWU hopes to engage rank and file workers in the discussion, providing the media and the general public with the invaluable “inside” perspective that only working railroaders can provide.

CSX Background to Disaster

Before Mantle Ridge and their CEO, superstar Hunter Harrison hedged their way into CSX, employees had already been through several recent rounds of harsh top down management changes, decreed under Cindy Sanborn’s leadership. Union safety programs that were working with management were abolished. Company safety councils were implemented with no input from or involvement with union safety coordinators. Rules violations that were historically not a disciplined offense were now considered major rules infractions.

Very strict rules were put into place that were designed to address safety, especially rules pertaining to switching operations. Draconian attendance policies were put into place. Employees needing to mark off to visit the doctor were being disciplined due to the inhumane nature of these new policies. Seniority rosters were being dovetailed, causing workers to qualify at locations far from their home terminals, being forced to qualify upwards for thirty days or more on their own time (i.e., no paycheck) with no reimbursement for lodging.

Power Failure: Appalachia Plans for Life Beyond Coal

By Keith Griffith - Equal Voice News, May 3, 2016

Harlan County, Kentucky -- On his first shift in the coal mine, Brandon Farley closed his eyes to steady his nerves as the powered cart he was riding disappeared into the mountainside. A third-generation coal miner in this Appalachian corner of Eastern Kentucky, Farley began working in the mines right out of high school and kept at it for 15 years, until he was laid off in late February.

Farley, now 32 and a married father of two, worked his way up in the Appalachian coal mines to a job as an underground electrician, running the high voltage cables that power heavy, specialized equipment at the mining face. Mining is the only work he knows.

In 2010, Farley was working at the Abner Branch mine when the roof collapsed, killing his friend Travis Brock, who was 29. Farley escaped serious injury in his own years as a miner, but his hands bear a miscellany of scars from minor accidents. 

"The juice is worth the squeeze," he says, glancing at his palms with a chuckle. "I never did look at the dangers as much as I did the money."

The money, for a while, was very good. Farley was making $25 an hour in the mines. With plenty of overtime -- Farley often worked 60-hour weeks -- experienced miners like him routinely made $80,000 to $100,000 a year. In Harlan County, which has about 28,000 residents, the median household income is $25,000.

Over 50 years ago, in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson toured Appalachia to kick off his "War on Poverty." Harlan County's poverty rate, which tracks roughly with the region's, was then 55 percent. It remains more than double the national average, at 32 percent, although those numbers typically don't account for government transfer payments, such as Social Security, safety net and veterans' benefits. (In 2014, Eastern Kentucky received $13.4 billion in government entitlements, making up more than a third of the region's income.)

Though it's long been a region of economic hardship, Appalachian Kentucky now faces a crisis of alarming proportions. Since the end of 2008, the region has lost more than 10,000 coal mining jobs, a decline of more than two-thirds. Kentucky's coal production is now at its lowest level since 1954, according to the state government. Other coal mining regions have been hit by the national decline in coal production, but none as hard as this one.

Locally, the collapse of coal is often blamed on President Barack Obama and environmental safeguards, which some residents say are needed to protect water, air and families. "This all began when Obama started his 'war on coal' -- and he did," says Farley, the laid-off miner. "If they are gonna do away with coal, why not put

Experts believe that the coal industry's decline in Kentucky has more to do with the abundance of cheap natural gas and drastically cheaper coal from surface mines in Wyoming. Regardless, there is a growing sense in Harlan County that coal isn't coming back.

After his latest layoff, Farley is now reluctantly looking for other kinds of work. "That's all we ever done is mine coal, though," he says. "It's the best job I ever had."

Farley finds the prospect of taking a significantly lower-paying job unpalatable, though even finding one is a challenge. After getting career counseling from the Harlan County Community Action Agency, Farley applied for work with railroad shipper CSX. But coal makes up the bulk of CSX's shipping business, and the company announced new rounds of layoffs the week that Farley applied.

"It's strange to hear the lonesome horn of a train anymore," says HCCAA Executive Director Donna Pace. "Used to be, that's all you heard."

Railroad Shop Workers Vote No on Merging Jobs

By Jon Flanders - Labor Notes, February 18, 2016

Image, right: A boilermaker works on a locomotive plow, a part that often gets damaged in operation. Railroad workers recently voted down a concessionary deal that would have blended machinists' and pipefitters' jobs together. Photo by the author.

Union members have become used to a certain pattern: threats of plant closings and layoffs, followed by a vote to reopen the contract and make concessions to “save jobs.”

In the railroad shops of the CSX corporation, this pattern has been broken.

Last fall CSX made an offer to its machinists and pipefitters—backed by their unions, the Machinists (IAM) and SMART. The tentative agreement would merge the two crafts into a single job, “Master Mechanic.” For instance, the master mechanic would install both power assemblies (previously machinists’ work) and radiators (previously pipefitters’ work).

Management painted the concessionary deal in glowing terms. But in December, workers in both crafts bucked the threat and overwhelmingly voted no.

FIXING ENGINES

Nationally there are around 8,000 railroad machinists. They rebuild locomotives from the ground up and do preventative maintenance such as replacing power assemblies, turbos, traction motors, and other mechanical items.

Pipefitters work on the extensive pipe systems on locomotives: air, fuel, and oil.

Collectively, these railroad shop workers maintain the locomotive fleet for all the major railroads in the U.S.

The critical role they play got front-page attention after a defective locomotive led to a 2013 disaster in the town of Lac Mégantic, Quebec. A runaway train carrying crude oil exploded, killing 47 people.

MORE WORK, SAME PAY

CSX Chief Administrative Officer Lisa Mancini claimed in a September press release that the contract deal reflected the unions’ and company’s “collective commitment to finding innovative ways to support our employees while driving long-term efficiency.”

Needless to say, the affected workers saw things a little differently. It looked to them like more work for the same pay.

Machinists and pipefitters would have to learn each other’s jobs. Previously, if a job called for both piping and mechanical, the two crafts might have worked together on a team. Now the whole job might be done by whoever was at hand—leading to job losses all around.

CSX was promising to guarantee jobs for two years, but not many thought the guarantee would last much longer.

The agreement would have given up not only traditional job jurisdictions, but also seniority and employee-protection agreements, where laid-off machinists are paid a percentage of their wages for a period of time based on years of service.

Layoffs are a particular concern for these workers—who might otherwise be forced to move rather than spend time looking for another job near home.

RAUCOUS MEETINGS

The initial proposal met with resistance; meetings reportedly went very badly. Workers who’d always been quiet before were making ominous-sounding threats against union officers.

Next CSX closed the 100-year-old Corbin locomotive shop in Kentucky and the Erwin railyard in Tennessee, citing the decline in coal shipments.

Many machinists and pipefitters lost jobs in these shops. Layoffs of other crafts, such as the boilermakers, followed. Obviously management hoped this would bring pressure to bear.

In reality, despite the decline in coal shipments, CSX has yet to go in the red. Last summer, while it was negotiating the concessions, the company announced its profits had risen 4.5 percent in the second quarter and it had beaten its own expectations for earnings. In the full year 2015, the company made $3.6 billion in operating profit.

Railroads lay off hundreds and close routes in Appalachia

By Jeff Lusanne  - WSWS.org, October 29, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

In the rugged, mountainous region of Central Appalachia—covering West Virginia, eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, and Western Virginia—many towns and cities exist because of a particular industry. Sometimes, the name of a town itself shows this: for example, Alloy, WV, where a silicon metal alloy plant is located on the banks of the Kanawha River. Countless towns were built around coal mines, many have which have faded away as mines closed, or become shells of their former prosperity. Indeed, Prosperity, WV is a place, located near the high-quality coal in Raleigh County.

The railroads, built through the challenging terrain of the Appalachian region to transport its valuable resources to domestic and international markets, created railroad towns. The sorting of traffic, maintenance of track and equipment, and administrative tasks created hundreds of jobs in cities across the region.

In the last two months, mass layoffs of railroad workers in response to falling coal traffic have called into question the fate of several towns that are inextricably linked to the railroad industry, where generations of workers have been employed by railroads.

The most severe blow was the sudden October 15 announcement by CSX Railroad that it was effectively ending operations in Erwin, Tennessee, a yard and maintenance base on a major route through the area. Employees of the railroad in Erwin heard the news in the morning at the beginning of their shifts, and then some spent their shift assembling all the equipment in the yard into the last train to leave town. When it did, 300 workers lost their jobs.

On October 20, CSX announced another 180 layoffs of yard and maintenance in Corbin, Kentucky, another major regional terminal. Due to declining coal traffic, the railroad closed the locomotive terminal and car shop, where workers inspect and maintain equipment. A hundred employees will remain and the terminal will stay open.

In both Corbin and Erwin, CSX stated that workers have the option of moving for work outside of the area—which could mean hundreds of miles away. An engineer wrote in the Erwin Record that with the last shift of crews, the conversation was “Where you going, Nashville? Birmingham? Etowah? Tampa?.” Followed by the “It’s been good working with you,” then “the handshakes, the hugs, the misty eyes, the turns and walks away.”

The positions of engineers, conductors, maintainers, and repairman were skilled operating or mechanical jobs with wages that are not commonly available elsewhere in the region, and their loss will have a devastating impact on the local economy and the workers affected.

Railroad Workers Fight Proposed Job Consolidation

By Jon Flanders - CounterPunch, October 13, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

With the unprecedented scrutiny freight railroads are now under due to oil train wrecks, and with record profits on the books, you would think that the major carriers would be unusually solicitous of their mechanical maintenance workforce, the people that are the doctors in the shop “hospitals” that treat the defects of locomotives. But you would be wrong.

One leading class 1 carrier, CSX, is demanding unprecedented changes in the working agreement of its
machinists and pipefitters, changes that could potentially turn the lives of these workers upside down. A “Master Mechanic” tentative agreement (TA) is currently being discussed in its locomotive shops.

In a promotional press release a CSX spokesman said: “This agreement is part of CSX’s focus on promoting a flexible workforce to meet changing business demands, and developing opportunities to retain and support our highly skilled workforce,” said Cressie Brown, vice president-labor relations, CSX.

The CSX press release quoted the head of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) District 19 in support of the agreement. “This tentative agreement provides new options for CSX employees, giving them more control of their careers, by expanding on the efficiencies gained from our previous partnership at Huntington, West Virginia while providing CSX with the tools they need to have the most efficient locomotive maintenance team in the industry,” said Jeff Doerr, IAM President and Directing General Chairman.

The Huntington “partnership” saw machinists and pipefitters foregoing former job descriptions in return for keeping locomotive rebuilding from outsourcing. There was no merging of union representation however, a “ratio” of machinists to pipefitters assured the two unions of their dues. The same ratio deal goes along with the proposed tentative agreement. So for example perhaps 85 percent of the jobs going forward would be machinists, 15 percent pipefitters.

Threatening major layoffs if the machinists and pipefitters, members of the International Association of Machinists(IAM) and the the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association (SMART) fail to ratify it, CSX is pulling out all the stops to see the TA passed.

Rank-and-File Rail Workers Rebel Against Single-Person Crews

By Kari Lyderson - In These Times, September 15, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Railroad workers scored a victory last week in a years-long battle over the introduction of single-person crews on freight trains, a move that railroad workers say is a recipe for disaster. On September 10, a unit of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air and Rail Transportation Workers (SMART) union announced that members had voted down a proposed contract which would have allowed the railroad company BNSF to run more than half its trains with just one worker on board.

BNSF and other railroad companies assert that automation and modern controls on tracks mean freight trains can be safely and efficiently operated by only one engineer, a change that would essentially eliminate the position of the conductor.

Railroad workers, however, say that having only one person on trains that are often more than a mile long is a safety risk for workers and communities alike, especially as more and more trains are involved in carrying explosive crude oil cross-country. The introduction of single-person crews would further a longstanding push by industry to reduce the number of workers needed to operate trains; currently most freight trains have a conductor and an engineer, but in decades past crews of three to five people were common. An industry shift to single-person crews would likely mean significant job losses, and significant savings for railroads on labor costs.

Currently the major railroads like BNSF are not using single-person crews, but smaller railroads are. The July 2013 Lac-Megantic disaster in Quebec, in which a train derailed and caused a deadly explosion, brought increased scrutiny of single-person crews. 

The contract between the union and BNSF had been negotiated by a union leadership body known as the district committee, SMART GO-001, representing about 3,000 conductors, brakemen and switchmen in multiple states. Leaders of Railroad Workers United (RWU), a national organization that includes members from the country’s 13 different railroad labor unions, said that SMART GO-001 leadership had pushed for approval of the single-person crew provision, apparently as a way to gain other concessions from BNSF.

SMART’s national leadership opposes single-person crews, and supports proposed federal legislation on the issue. The Rail Safety Improvement Act (S. 2784) just introduced in the Senate on September 10, and the Safe Freight Act (HR 3040), introduced in August 2013 in the House, would require two workers on any freight train.

In a statement on SMART’s website, SMART Transportation Division President John Previsich says: “No one would permit an airliner to fly with just one pilot, even though they can fly themselves. Trains, which cannot operate themselves, should be no different.”

In an email notifying union members that the proposed contract had been voted down, SMART GO-001 committee general chairperson Randall Knutson said, “Moving forward, this office will notify BNSF Labor Relations that we remain open to informal conversation regarding these matters, but will oppose any formal attempt by BNSF to serve notice to change our existing crew consist agreements prior to the attrition of all protected employees.”

In other words, the leadership indicated that it would not cooperate with the company in pushing single-person crews any longer. Knutson’s email also said the leadership would be in touch with more details about the contract fight in coming weeks.

SMART GO-001 district committee leaders did not return a phone message or emails for this story.