Meaning | Rail workers are angry – and rightly so | So Good News


In mid-September, the country’s railway companies were locked in tense negotiations with several railway unions, and a rail strike – a potential economic disaster for the country and global supply chains – loomed on the horizon.

In the last days before the strike deadline, the Ministry of Labor intervened through an arbitration process under an emergency panel commissioned by the White House. An eleventh-hour tentative agreement emerged days later, averting a work stoppage for the SMART Transportation Division, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, which together represent about 60,000 workers (several other railroad unions had negotiated similar contract proposals earlier ). But the railway workers still have a long way to go in the fight for a fair contract; many workers are unhappy with the proposed agreement and say they will vote it down, and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen voted on October 26 to reject the proposed agreement.

The main frustrations workers have often expressed revolve largely around a stressful shift planning system; many say unpredictable schedules, combined with understaffing, undermine family life and make it difficult to even call in sick without being penalized.

Railroad Workers United, a grassroots group representing workers from several unions and branches of the industry, has urged its members to vote down the tentative agreement, saying it “does nothing to address or correct the underlying causes of worker disillusionment and dissatisfaction. with their working conditions. Short staffing, long hours, strict attendance policies, poor scheduling practices, lack of time off and a generally poorer quality of work life will continue under this contract if ratified.”

Last month, I spoke with Hugh Sawyer, a thirty-four-year-old train engineer based in the Atlanta area and treasurer of Railroad Workers United, about the working conditions that have been a perennial source of stress and resentment for many railroad workers. He explained that as part of a “pool”, a system for 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 him to get forty-eight hours of rest after every six consecutive days of work, Sawyer is always subject to being called, even on an assigned day off.

“My salary has basically remained stagnant, if you factor in inflation and what have you, for my entire career. And now it’s become unsustainable for a lot of people.”

The erratic scheduling is wreaking havoc on rail workers’ lives, and the nation’s railroads are pushing in this latest round of contract talks to maintain and even intensify this system of shift assignments:

“I can be called out an hour before my day off starts… I don’t know if I’m going to be off on my allotted days off. So I can’t book doctor’s appointments and stuff or do anything. real plans for a particular day.. .

“I think it’s become a big problem especially for the younger ones. The railways went way beyond what they should have to cut train crews and now they want us to just be available to work at will with very little rest at home or little of. time. And I don’t know what it is about the pandemic, but it’s started something all over this country. People have re-prioritized their lives and realized that these jobs, whether in the railroad industry or wherever, are not the end .and that, you know, we want time at home and for a life outside the railroad. I think that’s the biggest problem.

– The transporters, on the other hand, have decided that we are just labor to be mistreated. They don’t care about us having a lifestyle outside of the railroad, and they won’t pay us for it, [although] historically, railroad workers have been well paid, and part of that has been for the home life they sacrifice. But my wages have essentially remained stagnant, if we factor in inflation and what have you, for my entire career. And now it’s becoming unsustainable for many people.”

Sawyer also pointed out that for many workers, the main issue in contract negotiations is not financial compensation, but rather control over their time on the job and the consequences of not following the schedule imposed on a worker in a given week:

“Our wages are important; we need real wage increases. And I don’t want to downplay that because that’s absolutely 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 get sick at the weekend, and I go to the doctor, I go to the emergency room. And they say: I have the flu. And I have a doctor’s note that says: ‘He has the flu. He has to be off for three or four days. It means nothing. I am disciplined because I have taken a day off, or more than one day off, on the weekend … I can mark one calendar day in a ninety-day period on the weekend without being disciplined. And if I have off for five minutes into another day, that counts as two days off. It’s ridiculous. And that’s the part that upsets me: here’s the doctor’s note. I’m not just saying I’m sick, I I prove to you that I’m sick and you’re still going to discipline me for it? They have this progressive disciple in the program, and you could end up losing your job.”

The lousy scheduling system could prompt workers to vote no on the proposed deal in the coming weeks, triggering another round of negotiations. But a prolonged strike will remain unlikely. The last rail strike was in 1992 and lasted only about a day before Congress intervened to stop it. The Railway Labor Act, a product of an era when labor unrest on the railroads often turned into bloodbaths, largely limits industrial action and allows government intervention to force a solution to a subject of collective bargaining. Sawyer said:

“We’re banned from actually going on strike because we’re so important to the economy. The economy collapses, basically on day one of a rail strike. And that’s why there’s always this pressure to force something, to force the carriers and the unions to come to some kind of agreement so that the logistics network will continue.”

He noted that railroad companies have tried to capitalize on fears of a potential rail strike during the thirty-day “cooling off” period in which the unions and carriers agree not to strike while negotiating by blocking some rail shipments—a move the unions called “corporate blackmail ».

“By law, I can’t go on strike for this thirty-day cooling-off period. And by law, the railroad can’t lock us out for thirty days. But nobody thought, ‘Well, hell, we’re just going to lock the customers out and prevent them from to ship and put pressure on Congress … to force a deal on us.”

But Sawyer is also bitter about the way his union has positioned itself in the negotiations, saying that “what we presented to the President’s Emergency Management Board was much less than what we originally asked for at the bargaining table.” Both the President’s Emergency Management Board’s recommendations, and the last-minute tentative agreement that was later reached, provide for wage increases over the next few years, but largely ignore the most important scheduling and paid leave issues.

As for what he wants his union to pursue, Sawyer said what railroad workers are asking for is simple — a schedule that establishes a full-time 40-hour work week, 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 a year. So they want thirteen weekends. And I think [the public] need to understand, most workers start with 104 days off. It’s called the weekend. Railroad workers start with nothing. So I don’t think it’s outrageous that they [give workers, especially] the younger ones have one weekend off a month, where they know they’re going to have time off, there are no ifs, ands, and buts…And that seems like a reasonable thing to ask for.

“I think we need to figure out what a full-time worker is. [Federal law] states that a full-time worker is one who works thirty hours or more per week, and that the language explicitly excludes railroad workers or persons covered by the Railroad Labor Act. So we must have that. It must 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 someone who answers the phone every time we call.’ And that has to change.”

When any of the twelve railroad unions reject their proposed agreement, it could trigger another round of negotiations, federal intervention, and eventually a strike that would cripple the railroad system across the country, as other unions would not cross a picket line. The no vote by the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen on Oct. 26 will restart the union’s talks with the carriers and raise the possibility of a strike. Earlier in October, another union, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, rejected a similar tentative agreement. That means rail workers can strike at the end of the union’s cooling-off period on November 19.

Whether the trains stop next month or not, rank-and-files signal a rising tide of anger not only with the bargaining process but with an industry that has pursued profits and efficiency by driving workers to breaking point.


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