On July 11th, 2022, the workers of twelve unions representing railway workers voted to strike, carrying a 99% approval rate for the vote. Almost immediately, at the behest of the railway companies, President Joe Biden’s Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) stepped in and mandated a 60 day “cooling off” period in order to keep the trains running. On September 16th, this cooling off period will end, with no agreement for three of the twelve unions involved to be seen.
Of the twelve unions involved in the contract negotiations, three have not reached an agreement: Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers, Transportation Division (SMART TD), the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS). The Unions’ dispute centers around two separate grievances: The draconian and punitive attendance policy referred to by the railway carrier companies as the “Hi-Viz” policy and the carriers’ move towards smaller and smaller train crew sizes, referred to as “precision-based engineering”.
The Hi-Viz policy, introduced by BNSF in February of 2022, requires that railroad workers remain on call 24-7 for up to 14 days at a time, including weekends and holidays. A worker is allotted 30 points that they may lose for any absence whatsoever, including doctors appointments and family emergencies. One absence nets seven points and eventually results in termination. This results in workers reporting to work sick, deferring needed medical appointments, missing weddings, funerals, and child’s birthdays, and a general sense of burnout.
Precision Based Engineering is a practice increasingly in vogue with freight carriers that sees locomotives operated with an absolute bare minimum of engineers, sometimes with a crew of a single person. This is a bid by the carriers to reduce labor costs (and thereby increase profits) and it comes with a corresponding increased workload and hazard for the worker. 14 hour days are not uncommon for engineers, and the on the job mortality rate for workers has increased by 60% over the past five years.
The railway carriers, represented by the National Carriers Conference Committee (NCCC), have refused to recognize the demands of the Unions. Instead, they have cynically appealed to the PEB and congress to come to their aid and force the railway workers to accept the carriers’ terms and continue to work. On Wednesday, the carriers began slowing and canceling freight routes and have announced that most AmTrak routes would cease running. This is nothing more than “corporate terrorism”, meant to scare congress and the public and to force the unions to give in and accept the carriers’ proposals.
The federal government has not stood still during this dispute. In July, President Joe Biden’s PEB mandated a cooling-off period of 60 days in the hopes that the NCCC and the unions could reach an agreement. In August, the PEB issued a set of recommendations to both parties, though the recommendations still do not address the Hi-Viz policy or Precision Engineering grievances. In fact, the Unions’ demands regarding scheduling and the Hi-Viz policy were “expressly rejected” by the PEB, according to the freight carriers.
At the end of the cooling off period, the executive branch and the PEB will be powerless to act further. Additional government action will have to come from congress. US Labor Secretary Martin Walsh said in a statement “All parties need to stay at the table, bargain in good faith, and come to angreement.” He further stated “The fact that we are already seeing some impacts of contingency planning by railways again demonstrates that a shutdown of our freight rail system is an unacceptable outcome for our economy and the American people, and all parties must work to avoid that.” Should congress choose to act, they may either force the unions to accept the PEB’s recommendations or extend the cooling off period, keeping workers on the job.
The unions refuse to cave to the demands of the exploitative and greedy railway carriers, or to the federal government. “Rather than gridlock the supply chain by denying shipments, the railroads should work towards a fair settlement that our members, their employees, would ratify,” said Jeremy Ferguson, president of SMART-TD and Dennis Pierce, president of BLET. “For that to happen, we must make improvements to the working conditions that have been on the bargaining table since negotiations began.”