OMAHA, Neb. (TSWT) – A last-minute deal prevented a railway strike for the time being, but many railway workers remain unhappy with working conditions, including some who protested outside their workplaces on Wednesday ahead of the vote to approve the new contracts.
Handfuls of workers gathered outside railroad yards across the country in pickets organized by a newly formed workers group, separate from the 12 unions that negotiated deals with the major U.S. freight railroads last week. The protesters expressed their dismay at the deals, just as the unions are trying to explain the potential benefits they negotiated to their approximately 115,000 members ahead of the contract votes.
Fears of the dire economic consequences of a rail strike that could cripple businesses of all kinds, which depend on the railroads for supplies of raw materials and finished goods, prompted the Biden administration to jump into the midst of contract talks last week. and urge both parties to reach an agreement. agreement. The contract talks include Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, BNSF, CSX, Kansas City Southern and a number of other railroads so that the entire country would be hit by a strike.
Nearly a dozen BNSF workers gathered near Minot, North Dakota on Wednesday with homemade signs that read, “We demand more!!” and “We will not flinch.” Another group of half a dozen workers stood outside their job site in Olathe, Kansas, holding signs that read “Railroad Greed Drives Inflation” and “Greedy Railroads Harm Countries’ Supply Chains.”
Workers’ concerns about leisure time and the railway’s demanding attendance policy were central to the negotiations. In the end, unions representing engineers and conductors pledged three additional unpaid days off for employees to attend doctor’s appointments without being penalized and get better vacation scheduling with the 24% increase and $5,000 in bonuses that a special board of directors appointed by President Joe Biden recommended this summer for the five-year deals.
It remains to be seen whether those concessions are enough to get workers to vote for these deals. A branch of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union rejected a deal last week that didn’t include those extra days off, so they’re back at the table working on a new pact. Two smaller unions did approve their deals, but the other nine unions will count their votes at different times over the next two months.
The two largest unions that lasted the longest — the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union that represents engineers, and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers that represents train conductors — aren’t expected to report. the results of their voting until mid-November. Members of those unions are still awaiting all the details of the deals Biden announced last Thursday, as lawyers are still finalizing everything before the full agreements are released.
That would allow for a possible strike outside the midterm elections, mitigating the potential political impact of the talks for Biden and the Democrats. If one of the unions rejects their contracts, Congress could still be forced to intervene.
Recently retired engineer Marilee Taylor, who left the Chicago railroad after more than 30 years earlier this year when BNSF imposed the industry’s strictest attendance policies, said she doesn’t think the tentative agreements are enough to address concerns about scheduling and tackle the workload Major railroads have eliminated nearly a third of their workforce over the past six years. Unions say the railway’s strict policies make it difficult to take time off without a fine.
“The problem remains that we work fatigued,” said Taylor, who is active in the Railroad Workers United coalition that urged workers to go on strike. “The safety of ourselves, our colleagues and the people we serve – whose communities we run through – are at risk….Because of these circumstances, many, many employees who don’t lose 90% of their breathing time on or on behalf of the railroad can keep.”
Norfolk Southern engineer Hugh Sawyer said it’s hard to say how many workers will end up voting for these deals because they might decide these deals are the best they can get, though he said he doesn’t hear many people happy with them. . Even if they remain frustrated, workers may be unwilling to go on strike and risk Congress intervening and imposing a contract on them that could be worse than what the unions agreed to.
“We’re tired of the way we’re being treated there,” said Sawyer, a 34-year railroad veteran who serves as treasurer of the Railroad Workers United group, which includes workers from all unions. “There’s a lot of anger out there.”
One example of the schedule challenges railroad workers face is that Sawyer had an outpatient surgery on one of his days off earlier this week, but he has no idea when he can make an appointment to have the stitches removed from his head. next week because he is then on call and does not know when he will work.
“It’s just ridiculous,” he said.