Labor Movement / Trade Unions

Railroad Workers Will Have Final Word on National Contract

By Geoff Mirelowitz and Marilee Taylor

September 15, 2022 — A national rail strike has been postponed for now. Under enormous pressure from the Biden administration and threats in Congress to impose onerous conditions, leaders of the two largest rail unions and the National Carriers Conference (representing railroad (RR) owners) announced a tentative agreement on a new national rail contract this morning.

Details concerning the most important issue fueling the anger of RR workers are only beginning to emerge. That issue is relief from draconian attendance policies that deny workers adequate time off for rest, family, and medical needs. Whatever concessions the billionaire RR owners may have made at the last minute were only the result of the strike deadline that was set for 12:01 am September 16. Until RR workers themselves can read and discuss the proposed contract, nothing is settled.

National rail strike has been postponed for now, after major rail unions and RR owners announced tentative contract deal on September 15, 2022. (Photo: Paul Hennessy / Zuma Press )

The joint statement released by the officials of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Sheet Metal Air Rail Transportation Division (SMART) hailed the agreement. But it also acknowledged, “This contract will not become final until our members have an opportunity to review its terms and approve it through a ratification vote.”

The rage among RR workers over their intolerable working and living conditions has been widely underestimated for months. This was captured by the action of the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) appointed by Biden that recommended a contract settlement that rejected these concerns.

For background information see “Are Railroad Workers Heading Toward a Strike?

Many workers see the carriers’ attendance policies as a form of terror to compel railroaders to subordinate their entire lives to the carriers’ profit demands. A September 13 Washington Post article reported, “Two of the largest rail carriers that mainly operate in the Western United States — BNSF and Union Pacific — are the companies with the points-based attendance policies. More than 700 BNSF employees have quit since it rolled out a points-based policy in February. Workers can be terminated if they run out of points, even in the case of a family emergency.”

As the strike deadline neared, even the big-business media increasingly had to acknowledge the legitimacy of workers’ demands. “Workers Say Railroad’s Efficiency Push Became Too Much,” read the headline of a September 15 New York Times article. “Workers, industry analysts and customers say the practices emanate from a business model that focuses relentlessly on holding down expenses, including labor costs. They say this leaves rail networks with little capacity to work around a disruption, whether it be a personal issue for an employee or a natural disaster like a hurricane — or, for that matter, a global pandemic,” the Times reported.

“Unions complained,” the article continued, “that to manage a shortfall of employees, the carriers effectively forced their members to remain on call for days and sometimes weeks at a time, partly through the use of strict attendance policies that could lead to disciplinary action or even firing. They said the policies pushed workers to the limits of their physical and mental health.

“‘Every facet of your life is dictated by this job,’ said Gabe Christenson, who until this year worked as a conductor for a large freight rail carrier. ‘There’s no way to get away from it.’”

Worker servicing a freight railroad line in Atlanta on Thursday, September 15, 2022. (Photo: Dustin Chambers / New York Times)

Only the RR engineers, conductors, and switchmen who have been under the heel of the carriers’ cruel and abusive policies can decide whether the proposed contract offers genuine relief and protection. If they believe it does not, they have already established that only united strike action can compel the necessary change in working and living conditions. The carriers understand no other language.

It is noteworthy that on Wednesday, September 14, nearly 5,000 rail workers affiliated with the International Association of Machinists (IAM), who maintain and repair RR locomotives, rejected the separate contract proposed to them by the carriers and the officials of their union. “Rejections reveal discontent among rank and file,” Bloomberg News observed.

That discontent has been growing for a long time. Nothing is settled yet.

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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