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Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)

'A Huge Deal': Major Rail Union Rejects White House-Brokered Contract Proposal

By Julia Conley - Common Dreams, October 10, 2022

Maintenance workers voted against the tentative agreement reached last month and said without a fair contract, a work stoppage could begin as early at November 19.

A union representing railroad maintenance and construction workers on Monday announced that its members have rejected the tentative agreement reached last month between unions and rail carriers, putting pressure on the carriers to offer a better deal to workers in order to avoid a nationwide strike in the coming weeks.

Reporting a turnout of 11,845 members, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED) said that 6,646 people had voted against ratifying the agreement and 5,100 had supported the deal, which was brokered last month with the help of the Biden administration's Presidential Emergency Board. Ninety-nine ballots were returned blank or were voided due to user errors.

The tentative agreement reached last month would include one additional paid day off and permit workers to take unpaid days to receive medical care without being penalized by carriers' strict attendance policies—two key concessions from the companies, as railroad workers' unions had expressed deep dissatisfaction with attendance rules and a lack of any paid sick time.

The deal also would include a 24% pay raise between 2020 and 2024 and would freeze workers' monthly contributions for their healthcare plans.

After the tentative agreement was reached on September 15, the railroad sector's unions agreed not to strike as workers across the industry voted on the deal.

Now, said the BMWED—the nation's third-largest rail workers' union and a division of the Teamsters—on Monday, a work stoppage could begin as early as November 19, depending on the upcoming votes by other unions.

Railroad workers still have reservations about the tentative agreement—strike still possible

By Alexandra Martinez - Prism, October 3, 2022

On Sept. 15, railroad union members reached a tentative agreement with railroad companies, narrowly avoiding a strike intended to protest poor working conditions and an inflexible, demanding attendance policy. After a full day of negotiations, in which President Joe Biden even called in to support the workers’ demands for better working conditions and sick time off without retaliation, the nation breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that they had dodged the strike and its inevitable economic consequences. However, now workers have had a chance to read through the tentative agreement, some say there were too many concessions made, and a strike could still be possible. In the interim, the unions are enforcing a strike injunction, dragging out the voting past the midterm elections.

When the agreement was first reached, rail workers like Michael Paul Lindsey, who had been opposed to the Presidential Emergency Board agreement, said they were all still in the dark—union leaders had reached a decision without workers actually knowing what was agreed upon. Once the agreement language was finally released at the beginning of the week of Sept. 19, workers were not happy.

“The TA additions are worse than the PEB,” tweeted Ross Grooters, a Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union member. “I don’t need questions answered. I need for all of us to VOTE NO!”

Many of the workers were concerned that the unpopular Automated Bid Scheduling was renegotiated back into the agreement in exchange for “voluntary off days.” The scheduling system threatens to reduce yard workers’ schedules to constantly on-call, just like engineers and conductors. 

Mark Burrows, a locomotive engineer in the industry from 1974 until he retired in 2016, said that railroad carriers and union representatives made concessions at the last minute. While the tentative agreement includes a provision that workers should not be penalized for going to the doctor, workers will only be allowed to go Tuesday through Thursday and must give 30 days advance notice. If they fulfill those conditions, points and merits will not be taken off.

“The idea that we should be celebrating that … I don’t know if that’s much to celebrate,” Burrows said. 

According to Burrows, the agreement also mentions that people who work on call will have extra days off, but that will be negotiated locally through different carriers and terminals. 

“As usual with a lot of these national agreements, they put things in that are kind of vague and gray and leave it open to be fine-tuned with respective carriers,” Burrows said. “In terms of their working conditions, their quality of life on and off the job, I’m going to say this is a token concession, and many see it in the same way. It’s going to be far from sufficient to satisfy most rail workers’ grievances.”

Burrows also said that part of the reason the agreement was successful was because it promised two days off. However, the fine print specified it as only 48 hours off, robbing workers of a conventional 60-hour weekend

Rail worker schedules are usually unpredictable, leading to canceled plans and sometimes waiting around the phone to get called for a job. The lack of predictability and consideration for their personal lives is at the forefront of the workers’ demands and is the primary reason why a growing number of railroad workers have left the industry. Over the last six years, 45,000 workers have left, accounting for nearly 29% of the industry.

More on Railroad Safety

By staff - Climate-Rail Alliance, September 14, 2022

In addition to the issues that are about to bring about a nationwide railroad strike, there is another open safety issue. The railroad industry wants to operate trains with only one person on the train. This is unsafe in many ways, and even against the industry’s safety rules, but the bottom line is at stake.

The comment entry form for the proposed FRA rule is here: https://www.regulations.gov/document/FRA-2021-0032-0001

Once again, the railroad industry’s masters, the hedge fund managers, want to squeeze more for increased profits. If a few people are killed or injured in the process or lots of valuable stuff gets bent, they don’t care as long as doing all that is less expensive than doing things safely.

Please comment supporting a required minimum of two people responsible for operating a train.

A Railroad Worker Strike Could Shake the Economy’s Foundations

By Paul Prescod - Jacobin, August 2, 2022

Once a coveted job, conditions for railroad workers have badly deteriorated. But railroad workers are central to our economy — so central that a current impasse between railroad companies and associated unions has prompted Joe Biden to intervene.

Six months ago, the spouses of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Corporation (BNSF) employees detailed the toll the job was taking on their families. A letter containing twenty-five of their stories portrays a climate where workers find it impossible to maintain a personal life.

Nichole Bischoff, who has taken the lead in organizing railroad worker spouses, said to a local news outlet, “So many parents wanna be at every trick-or-treating event, every school function, baseball game and they just can’t, and our kids learn to live with it.”

“My husband can’t even attend any of his appointments,” one anonymous spouse complained. “He has already gotten dropped from a couple [health care] providers for poor compliance.”

Now conditions for railroad workers are poised to take center stage nationally. On Friday, July 15, President Joe Biden intervened in a labor dispute that could have a dramatic impact on the nation’s economy. Contract negotiations between the major freight railroad companies and their associated unions, representing 115,000 railway workers, have reached an impasse. Utilizing the procedures of the Railway Labor Act, the president stepped in to form a presidential emergency board that will hold hearings and issue recommendations during a thirty-day “cooling-off” period.

But there are no guarantees that this mediation will produce a settlement, as railworkers have been pushed to the brink by decades of brutal corporate cost-cutting measures.

What If Rail Workers Struck? A Talk with RWU

U.S. Railroad Workers Inch Closer to a Possible National Strike

By Jeff Schuhrke - In These Times, July 25, 2022

After Biden appointed an emergency board to help resolve the labor dispute, rail workers warn: “We have the ability to stop the trains from moving.”

After waiting over two years to secure a new union contract, and still reeling from the impacts of Wall Street-ordered cost-cutting measures, 115,000 beleaguered workers who operate the nation’s freight railroads are inching closer towards a possible strike, which could come as soon as September. 

In an effort to drive down operating expenses and reward their wealthy shareholders, in recent years railroad companies have implemented ​“precision scheduled railroading,” or PSR — a version of just-in-time, lean production that centers on reducing the workforce and closing facilities. 

“For years, they cut and cut and cut. It didn’t matter which department or terminal, it was indiscriminate,” said Michael Paul Lindsey, an Idaho-based locomotive engineer with Union Pacific.

Over the past six years, the major Class I railroads like BNSF, Union Pacific, CSX and Norfolk Southern have slashed their collective workforce by 29 percent (around 45,000 workers), leaving the industry woefully understaffed and putting extra strain on workers already accustomed to long, irregular hours. 

Lindsey said the severe staffing shortages have resulted in ​“constant chaos and crisis,” with workers being called at all hours, day and night, expected to take on assignments they were not initially scheduled for. 

Cost-cutting has also meant freight trains are running with more cars and more cargo than existing infrastructure is equipped to handle, or else misrouting rail cars just to get them moving. This cost-cutting, along with a labor shortage, have been major contributors to the supply-chain crisis. 

Meanwhile, the railroad companies remain highly profitable, with owners raking in $183 billion in stock buybacks and dividends since 2010.

A Major Strike May be Coming and I Promise You No One is Ready for it if it Does!

By Xaxnar - Daily Kos, July 14, 2022

Breaking July 15, 2022 — The Strike has been put on hold by presidential order — see the UPDATE story here.

The news about people who work for a living has featured some recent breakthrough stories, where previously immune companies have seen their workers organize and form unions. But what about an industry that remains one where unions have a long history and are still active? 

Very few people pay attention the way we should to railroads in America. That may be about to change, and not in a good way.

Sure, news about expanding Amtrak seems like a good thing, and there are plenty of High-Speed Rail (HSR) proposals — usually accompanied by reports on how expensive they are and how long they will take to build — if they can get past the NIMBY folks, the highway and airline lobbies, and the fossil fuel interests.

People freak out about bomb trains (understandable), and derailments — but how many people pay attention otherwise to the condition of our rail corridors, how much the industry is investing in itself, how much of the national economy depends on rail service, and the conditions for the people who work for the railroads?

Or the public good for that matter?

Rail Unions Are Bargaining Over a Good Job Made Miserable

By Joe DeManuelle-Hall - Labor Notes, February 2, 2022

Contract negotiations covering 115,000 rail workers in the U.S. are expected to heat up in 2022.

Workers are seething over the impact of extreme cost-cutting measures. Rail unions are escalating through the slow steps of negotiations under the Railway Labor Act—toward a resolution, a strike, or a lockout.

Rail remains one of the most heavily unionized industries in the country, and rail workers maintain the arteries of the economic system.

In 2018, U.S. railroads moved 1.73 trillion ton-miles of freight, while trucks moved 2.03 trillion. (One ton-mile is one ton of freight moved one mile.) A slim majority of rail freight consists of bulk commodities, ranging from grain to mined ores to automobiles; slightly less is made up of consumer goods.

COST-CUTTING FRENZY

In the flurry of reporting on what’s slowing down the supply chain, little has been said about one contributing factor—the years-long squeeze that major railroads have put on their operations and workforces.

Precision Scheduled Railroading is a nebulous term that has come to cover many measures aimed at cutting costs and increasing profits. (Although the name refers to trains operating on a set schedule, that’s just one piece.) All the railroads engage in elements of it.

PSR is basically the railroad version of lean production—the methodology of systematic speedup and job-cutting that caught on in manufacturing in the ’80s and spread to many industries.

The railroads have done it by cutting less-profitable routes; closing and consolidating railyards, repair barns, and other facilities; running fewer, longer trains; and laying off tens of thousands of workers while demanding the remaining workers do more.

Class I railroads—the companies with annual revenues over $900 million—employed fewer workers this January than any month since 2012, falling below even the early-pandemic slump.

Railroads have cut as many as 35 percent of workers in some titles over the past several years. Overall there were 160,795 Class I rail workers in December 2015, and only 114,499 by December 2021.

At the same time, individual freight trains were hauling, on average, 30 percent more tonnage in 2020 than in 2000.

But all these practices add up to a system that doesn’t function well under pressure—the pressure of a global pandemic, or even just the pressure of normal operations. In stretched-out, just-in-time supply chains with no room for error, delays cascade into more delays.

Oil Trains: Are Profits Worth Our Risk?

What’s Wrong with Single Employee Train Operations?

By Ron Kaminkow - Railroad Workers United, March 2021

At first glance, the casual observer from outside of the rail industry is prone to say that single employee train operation sounds dangerous. “What if the engineer has a heart attack?” is an often heard question. And while this question has merit, there are many other and far more complex and unanswered questions about just how single employee train operations could be accomplished safely and efficiently for the train crew, the railroad and the general public. How will the train make a back-up move? What happens when the train hits a vehicle or pedestrian? How will the train crew member deal with “bad-order” equipment in his/her train, or make pick-ups and set-outs en route? What about job briefings and calling signals, copying mandatory directives and reminders of slow orders? These are just some questions that we take up in this article.

Remote Control and “Utility Conductors”

In recent years, the Class I rail carriers have been biding their time, slowly but surely inserting language into recent contracts with both unions of the operating crafts that will facilitate their schemes to run over the road trains with a lone employee. They have made arrangements with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen (BLET) to allow the BLET represented crew member to make use remote controlled locomotives. With this scenario, the lone operator would strap on a belt pack, dismount from the locomotive, and run the locomotive by remote control operation (RCO) using radio control from the ground. And the carriers have also made deals with the United Transportation Union (UTU) to allow for “utility conductors”; i.e. a conductor who can “attach” to one or more over-the-road trains during the course of a single tour of duty. Between the two arrangements, the rail carriers apparently believe they can safely and efficiently operate road trains with just one employee aboard as opposed to the current standard of two. We disagree.

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