Labor Movement / Trade Unions

Are Railroad Workers Heading Toward a Strike?

By Marilee Taylor and Geoff Mirelowitz

August 26, 2022 — Some 100,000 workers on the nation’s freight railroads are one step closer to a decision on whether to go on strike or not. That’s the result of the recommendations made August 16 by Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) Number 250, established by President Joe Biden in June of this year.

The government’s intent is to resolve an impasse between the railroad owners and all of the 12 unions representing rail workers organized into the Coordinated Bargaining Coalition and BMWED/SMART MD Coalition (Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division and Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — Mechanical and Engineering Department).


The national freight contract expired almost three years ago. The impasse is largely a result of policies imposed by the railroad owners that make working and living conditions for workers increasingly intolerable. This includes imposing draconian attendance policies coupled with the carriers’ demands to cut the workforce even further by altering work rules.

In July one top union official told NBC News, “The employees are angry. It’s a level of frustration amongst the workforce unlike any I have seen in the 45 years I’ve worked at the railroad.” At the same time the carriers have offered wage increases that do not even keep up with inflation, never mind actually improve the standard of living of these essential workers.

The PEB’s recommendations are unlikely to diminish that anger.

Several hundred rail workers from various unions demonstrated on July 30, 2022, in Galesburg, Illinois, where Warren Buffett’s BNSF Railway is the biggest employer. (Photo: Courtesy Jeff Schuhrker)

The written report signed by the three members appointed by Biden runs 119 pages. It purports to be an objective review of the conflicting issues between labor and management. However, its recommendations come down overwhelmingly in support of the carriers’ positions while rejecting most proposals made by the unions or deferring them to “further negotiations.” The carriers for their part have shown no willingness to even discuss many of the conditions of work or life that they insist it is their right to impose outside of any meaningful collective bargaining with the unions. Attendance policies are the worst example.

Now rail workers — many of whom have little or no free time because the carriers’ demand they work so often for long hours — are trying to wade through the 119-page report.  

Bosses claim labor’s ‘contributions’ don’t matter

Many workers have noticed a specific paragraph in the PEB report that some feel sums up the attitude of wealthy RR owners towards those who actually move the freight and maintain the equipment that produce the enormous profits billionaires like Warren Buffett (owner the Burlington Northern Santa Fe) have raked in for many years. It reads:

The Carriers maintain that capital investment and risk are the reasons for their profits, not any contributions by labor. The Carriers further argue that there is no correlation historically between high profits and higher compensation, either in the freight rail industry or more generally. To the contrary, one of the Carriers’ experts maintained that the most profitable companies are not those whose compensation is the highest. The Carriers assert that since employees have been fairly and adequately paid for their efforts and do not share in the downside risks if the operations are less profitable, then they have no claim to share in the upside either.

The arrogance of this opinion is matched only by its ignorance. The unions have no obligation to prove that higher wages will lead to higher profits for these billionaires. The rate of profit is determined by an entire series of factors not the least of which are the many decisions management arrogates to itself over which workers have no control whatsoever.

What is indisputable is that without the railroads’ operating employees, along with workers who maintain all the physical structures and equipment, the freight will not be delivered. Without them, each year 20 billion tons of products from coal, grain, and chemicals to food, household goods, and more will not move and the economy will come to a halt. Without labor the railroads — and virtually every other industry — will grind to a stop.

The arrogant myth that “contributions by labor” are unimportant flies in the face of the biggest concern among RR workers today. The carriers demand that many if not most workers make themselves available 24/7 with no set schedule for when they will go to work or return to their families.

This is not new. What is new is the ever harsher discipline imposed by the carriers for even the most reasonable absence from work. If the “contributions of labor” were as small as the RR owners claim, they would not need to threaten them with firing when pressing personal and family needs arise. But allowing workers reasonable time off would require hiring more workers. The carriers have chosen the opposite. They hire the absolute minimum and demand virtually non-stop 24/7 availability.

Rail workers are fed up

The NBC news story titled “Railworkers push to strike. Here’s why they’re angry” reported the following:

“Freight train workers are fed up. 

“One conductor said he nearly missed his wife’s funeral because he couldn’t get time off. An engineer said he was put on a disciplinary path after having to stay home to fix a broken water heater. Other freight train workers blamed the industry’s on-call, 24/7 scheduling requirements for health problems and divorces — a lifestyle they said had turned one of the best-paying blue-collar jobs in the country into one marred by misery and neglect.”

A rail worker walks alongside a segment of newly laid track on a BNSF Railway line. (Photo: Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg)

Two earlier World-Outlook articles — “BNSF Railroad Workers Resist Cruel Attendance Policy” and “Railroad Worker Keep Up Resistance to BNSF Hi-Viz Policy”— shed further light on this situation.

Union proposals related to the conditions of work and life that rail workers face span a number of contractual issues. In the summary of its recommendations the PEB refers to some of the most important as, “Carriers’ Proposal regarding Automated Bidding Systems, Pools, and Extra Boards and BLET and SMART-TD Proposal regarding Work Schedules.”

How does the PEB propose to resolve these? Per the report, “All issues returned to the Parties for negotiation with any and all unresolved issues to be resolved by final and binding Party-paid interest arbitration.”

In clearer language this means: Maintain the status quo that rail workers find intolerable. Negotiate again (despite the fact that during almost three years of negotiations the carriers refused to budge, while tightening discipline and harassment). If that doesn’t work, let some “neutral” arbitrator decide what kind of life you can have.

Railroad Workers United, which describes itself as “an inter-union, cross-craft solidarity ‘caucus’ of railroad workers, and their supporters, from all crafts, all carriers, and all unions across North America,” says on this score:

“On questions of attendance policies, work schedules, time off the job, predictability of train line-ups, call times, vacations, holidays, sick time, and more, the Board would recommend that the ‘organization withdraw the proposal’ or ‘remand the matter to the Parties to address.’”

Railroad workers have been patient, some might believe too patient, waiting for a resolution of these issues. They want them solved now, not at some point in the very indefinite future and not by a binding arbitration process that has been used on the RRs for decades and far too often serves the carriers’ interests, not those of rail labor.

Stagnant wages lose ground to inflation

The PEB recommendations do include a series of wage increases. They are modest, ranging from 3% to 4.5% for each of four years of the new contract to 7% for this year, 2022. Tacked on is a $1000 bonus payment each year that is not “compounded” (factored in as an increase in base pay). $1000 buys a lot less than it once did. By 2024 when the last bonus is paid no one knows what that $1000 will truly be worth, but almost certainly less than it is today. And coming from corporations that have raked in billions of dollars, it is not much more than a slap in the face.

The carriers claim that the current wave of skyrocketing inflation is temporary. They have no proof to offer for that assertion. Even the highest yearly increase proposed by the PEB for 2022 — 7% — does not keep up with the known rate of inflation this year.

A Norfolk Southern freight train in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Ben Hasty / Reading Eagle)

The carriers also argued that workers in many other industries do not earn the wages RR workers do, so RR workers should agree to less. Their proposed wage increases were even less than what the PEB is recommending — and the PEB recommendation still falls far short of what the unions proposed.

The carriers’ position is consistent with their claim that labor does not contribute to their profits. It is nothing other than an argument that because workers in other industries have been forced to accept lower wages, so should those who work on the RR. But there is no reason RR workers should help the carriers hold on to an even greater percentage of their enormous profits than they are already enjoying.

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, which owns the BNSF, announced on August 19 it had won regulatory approval to buy as much as 50% of the shares of Occidental Petroleum, one of the U.S. energy giants. “Some investors,” reported Bloomberg News, “believe it’s a step toward a full takeover, which may end up costing more than $50 billion” [emphasis added].

Rail workers have reason to be skeptical that Buffett and others can’t pay wages that not only keep up with inflation, but grant a real wage increase to workers who have kept the U.S. economy moving throughout the current pandemic. If Buffett can buy an oil company, he can certainly do that.

In another effort to cut the real wages workers take home, the PEB recommends that workers agree to lift the current cap on what they pay monthly for health care coverage. According to SMART’s (formerly the United Transportation Union, which represents conductors, switchmen and brakemen) summary of the PEB report, “Currently we pay $288.28 which is about 12.6% of the overall cost of the plan.”

The PEB tells rail workers to pay more: “Effective January 1, 2023, remove the cap on monthly employee contributions so that thereafter the contributions equal 15% of the overall cost to the Plans of providing covered benefits to participants.” This is another slap in the face in light of the carriers’ profits.

Nationwide strike may be only tool of the workers

What will happen next is not yet known. If the carriers and the unions agree to accept the PEB recommendations, that will settle the dispute. If RR workers decide these proposals are inadequate, they can direct their representatives to attempt to negotiate further, but the chances the carriers will agree to better terms than the PEB has proposed are slim to none. Ultimately this leaves workers with only one tool, a nationwide strike to win their reasonable demands.

A BNSF freight train in Livingston, Montana, last year as it travels from Seattle to points east. (Photo: William Campbell / Getty Images)

The last nationwide RR strike was over 30 years ago in 1991. It lasted 17 hours before Congress voted to impose the recommendations of a PEB established by then U.S. President George H. W. Bush. Rail workers learned exactly how few friends they had in Congress that day. The House voted 400 to 5. The Senate took a voice vote that didn’t even require a count. Some believe that if Congress acts in a similar fashion today the result will be the same. But ending a strike is not automatic, no matter what action Congress takes. Rail workers will need to decide if they are going to stand up to the government as well as the rail carriers, withhold their labor and insist their demands be met.

The outcome of such a decision cannot be predicted either. But considering the unremitting attacks on the working class over many decades, it is not unreasonable to believe that millions of other working people would be inspired by a large group of workers across the country standing up for higher wages and better working conditions.

If the unions take their case to the public and explain the issues — including the risk to public safety posed by the working conditions the carriers have imposed — support can be won.

Marilee Taylor retired in February from the BNSF RR as a locomotive engineer and member of the BLET Division 32 in Aurora, Illinois, after more than 28 years of service. Geoff Mirelowitz was a switchman on the BNSF for over 17 years and a member of SMART Local 845 in Seattle.

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