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A Rank-and-File Voice from the Railroad Struggle

There is no mistaking the tragedy that has befallen the railroad workers in the past couple of years. Deaths on the railroad are trending upwards, contract negotiations constantly fail, and punitive measures are stacked on to the workers effecting both their attendance and on the job performance. All these miseries are not due to the railroad being an industry in decline. Instead, it is quite the opposite; the Railroad Robber Barons are turning a profit every day at the expense of these workers.

The recent legislative action taken against these workers left them reeling in shock and disappointment. Those of us on the outside are thoroughly disgusted with what we have seen, but it is imperative in this time to listen to the voices of the railroad worker. Labor United Education League (LUEL) spoke to one worker, a union member from the Midwest who wishes to remain anonymous. This is what they had to say,

“Well, primarily we feel betrayed. Not just by Biden and Congress, but by our own unions. The AFL-CIO has blunt teeth. We’re sick and tired of these token offerings. One sick day? Take it back. It’s an insult. It almost seems designed as such. . . We want sick days like every other industry has—essentially as many as your illness requires, without fear of recrimination.”

The betrayal is clear to the workers. They have done everything they were told would benefit them by union leaders and government officials. They did their jobs, they negotiated in good faith, and when negotiations failed, they followed their union procedures and democratically decided that a strike was their path forward. Then, the President let them down, so they waited and played ball yet again. After that, their union leadership let them down but they still adhered to their democratic procedures. Finally, congress let them down and stripped not only their future away but also their right to strike and the last tool in their box to stand up against these monopolistic corporations. Again though, we turn to the worker’s themselves,

“At the end of the day, we simply want the carriers to acknowledge that we are human beings with full, meaningful lives outside of work. Our jobs are utterly exhausting, dirty, and dangerous. All the Class 1’s have reported record earnings, quarter after quarter, but they “can’t afford” to pay sick leave? This isn’t just demonstrably false; it’s insulting to our intelligence. The contempt that management displays to the rank-and-file is palpable. I truly believe that in their lust for profit, they’d rejoice if we all quit. They’re so blinded by greed that they’d never stop to consider that fact that no one was around to actually work the yard—they’d only rejoice over their exemplary operating ratio.”

Conditions of railroad work are dreadful. Workers partake in one-man crews, are forced to work at unreasonable speeds, and when injuries inevitably occur, they are told to stay quiet or lose their job. The railroad was once the gold standard of blue collar jobs. Militant workers fought, sometimes to the death, to protect their rights. Nowadays, workers are being battered down and their rights trampled by industry bosses and their yes-men in the government. Concessions and rights were stolen, never given! Loss of concessions and rights have adversely affected the workplace for the railroad workers.

Forced overtime is another huge issue. After Hunter Harrison introduced “Precision Scheduled Railroading” (PSR), everything including equipment, staff, and other essentials have been cut to the bone. According to the workers,

“We don’t run ‘thin,’ we are utterly emaciated in terms of manpower. If someone calls off or takes paid time off (PTO), they will hold an employee over to cover the vacancy. 16 hours in a rail yard isn’t just grueling, it’s unacceptably dangerous. The potential for fatalities is glaringly real, made exponentially worse by fatigue. Mind you, after working sixteen hours, you’re expected to report to your next shift. Factor in drive time, and you get about 4-5 hours of sleep.”

“Hybrid Discipline” is another point of contention. Bosses rush workers to finish tracks in an unrealistic time frame, and then send workers to disciplinary investigation when defects are discovered (that workers had no time to identify.) The workers told LUEL,

“The discipline at any Class 1 railroad is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered outside of the military or a correctional facility. . . management has also threatened workers with termination if they report an injury on the job—they would lose their ‘safety bonus’ if the FRA found out about any serious workplace injuries. My closest friend at work was involved in an ATV accident. (He ended up having a pretty bad closed head injury.) One of our managers followed him to the emergency room and told him it ‘would be in his best interest’ to return to work the following day.”

In the days, weeks, months, and years following this betrayal by President Biden and Democratic and Republican legislators, we must remember that these workers deserve our support. It was not one company or party that stole from them, but rather an entire system that has stolen their labor. The voice of the workers must be heard. The democratic process within the unions must be respected. Labor’s right to strike must be returned to them! Listen to what they have to say and learn from their struggles because an injury to one is an injury to all.

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