We haven’t completely dodged a ‘disastrous’ rail strike, rail workers say

I’m kind of backed into a wall where I have to go with it, even though I don’t really agree with it’

Rachel PremackThursday, September 15, 2022 4 minutes read

 Trouble on the railroads haven’t let up yet. (Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Everyday Americans rejoiced Thursday morning when they learned a “disastrous” rail strike would be averted. President Joe Biden announced that rail companies and rail workers’ unions had come to a tentative agreement — avoiding a seemingly inevitable work stoppage that could have begun Friday at 12:01 a.m.  

In the hours that followed, reporters from The Washington Post revealed details of that tentative agreement on Twitter. Rail workers will finally receive sick leave without being subject to penalties, consisting of unpaid leave and one additional paid day off, according to the Post’s sources. 

For one track worker, who requested that his name and employer not be published for fear of retribution, this isn’t enough. 

“It feels like the people that are making decisions for us aren’t trying,” he told FreightWaves Thursday morning. “I mean, one [paid] personal day is pathetic. I’m a single father with two weeks of vacation. I burn a week in days with my kid being sick.”

Rather than pay, rail workers have been most frustrated by the lack of flexible schedules. They will have the chance to review the White House-negotiated contract and vote on it sometime in the next week. The full text has not been released yet, though employees have shared their thoughts with FreightWaves on details that have been reported so far

Wes Ekstedt, a conductor for a Class I railroad who asked that his employer’s name not be published for fear of retribution, is cautiously optimistic about the tentative agreement. However, if rules around attendance policies don’t pass muster, he said union members will likely snub the tentative agreement.https://1080b671b65ee1015b07ffb5841638cd.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

A rejected contract would give rail conductors and engineers the chance to legally strike again after another “cooling off” period. 

Around 78% of union members surveyed in August rejected a previous version of the agreement, which did not include time off, according to a document shared to FreightWaves. 

That’s why the everyday American shouldn’t be so certain that we’ve completely avoided a rail strike. After years of an increasingly taxing work environment, longtime rail employees are worn down — and not trusting that the tentative agreement reached by their union officials and employers will deliver for them.

“It just feels like we’re going to be forced into a deal that I’ve heard nobody say anything positive about,” said the track worker.

It wasn’t always this hard to work to be a rail worker

During a recent workday, a longtime Norfolk Southern engineer heard from his boss that anyone who could recommend a new employee would receive a $5,000 bonus.

“I said to my boss, ‘The only people I hate enough to get jobs in the railroad already work here,’” said the engineer, who requested his name be withheld from publication for fear of retribution. “He just looked at me and walked away.”

Most longtime railroaders would likely consider that snarky comment warranted. Over the past decade, railroads have slashed costs and crews in order to make their stocks more appealing to Wall Street. They succeeded in outperforming the market, even as coal carloads — their biggest source of volume — slumped. 

However, by lowering headcounts, railroads found themselves following the summer of 2020 with not enough people to handle its normalizing volume levels. 

Norfolk Southern, for example, employed around 27,100 workers in 2016. Five years later, that number had dropped to 18,500. Rail employment today is down more than 20% since the beginning of 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We’ve been working hard to recruit and retain employees, including through both hiring bonuses for new conductor trainees and referral bonuses for current workers,” a Norfolk Southern spokesperson said in an emailed statement to FreightWaves. “Beyond those efforts, a tentative agreement between the rail carriers and unions has been reached, avoiding a work stoppage tomorrow and providing a much-deserved and historic pay raise to these dedicated workers.”

Because there are so few crews, railroads have taken extreme measures to keep their trains running. Most glaring was from Warren Buffett’s BNSF. The $23.3 billion railroader began to penalize employees who took time off for fatigue, family emergencies or illness. BNSF employees went from being on call 75% of the time to 90%, sometimes receiving calls while they were sleeping to come into work. Union officials said 700 rail crew left the company as a result of the policy, which the company claimed it ended in June. 

“They’re doing this model to cut workers and increase profits,” said Ekstedt, who also runs the popular rail worker Facebook group Fight for Two Person Crews.

Working on the railroad has always been challenging. But living in hotels for days at a time, 19-hour workdays and punishment for going to a doctor’s appointment were not the norm. Thanks in part to the railroads’ decision to cut back on costs and crews prior to the pandemic, such pressure on employees has ratcheted up.

“It’s possible that the railroads furloughed too many and that they could have taken on more costs,” longtime rail analyst Tony Hatch told FreightWaves in July. “I think one lesson out of this in the so-called just-in-case economy of the future will include railroads who will keep more safety stock [of labor].”

The Norfolk Southern engineer said the quality of life has plummeted since he started working more than three decades ago. The big appeal of working for railroads was high pay and plush retirement options at the end of your career. “When you got on the railroad, you were a lifer,” he said. 

Now workers can work in construction, retail or other fields and land decent hourly pay — and be home every night.

Charles Stallworth, a train conductor, said the tentative agreement doesn’t address his concerns that his job could be automated out. However, he said he plans on voting on the agreement. 

“At this point, I’m kind of backed into a wall where I have to go with it, even though I don’t really agree with it,” Stallworth said.