Reported by Julie Sneider for Progressive Railroading.
As anticipated by many in the rail industry, the Federal Railroad Administration last month announced a proposed rulemaking that would require railroads to use a minimum of two-person train crews for all operations, with only a few exceptions.
If adopted, the new regulation would also establish minimum requirements for the location of crew members on a moving train.
As the nation’s railroad worker unions presented their details for a new contract with the freight railroads to a Presidential Emergency Board, rank-and-file workers, upset with no contract since before the coronavirus pandemic, rallied with their leaders in Galesburg, Ill., to demand one. And they picked up wide labor and political support.
“What was inspiring was not just the rail workers there, but the members of other unions who came” in solidarity to the July 30 event, added AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Greg Regan, one of a lineup of speakers that day.
More than 150 railroad workers, family members and their supporters joined in the “Galesburg Rally for Rail Labor” here July 30, one of a series of protests being organized by rail workers across the Midwest as part of their fight to win a new contract. This western Illinois town is a major hub for BNSF Railway, with freight lines spreading out in all directions.
The action brought together track maintenance workers, conductors, engineers and workers from other rail crafts. Eleven different unions are currently in contract negotiations together with the seven national Class 1 freight carriers, which includes BNSF, the second largest in the country. Participants marched around Central Park, a large downtown traffic circle, and listened to speakers.
Last month, for The Real News, I reported on the egregious working conditions that rail workers on Class I freight railroads are facing, including punitive and inhumane attendance policies, chronic understaffing (after rail companies collectively laid off 30% of their workforce since 2015), stagnant wages, and dire safety threats as trains have gotten longer and heavier while rail carriers have simultaneously sought to reduce crew sizes down to one person. This long-simmering crisis recently came to a head when a coalition of negotiators representing more than 115,000 rail workers were unable to come to an agreement with the rail carriers, who have left workers without a contract for nearly three years. Even the National Mediation Board was unable to broker an agreement, declaring negotiations at an impasse on June 14, which opened the door for the unions to strike or for the carriers to initiate lockouts after a 30-day “cooling off” period—unless, that is, the Biden administration intervened.
US labor law is designed to prevent railroad strikes like the kind that shook America in the past. But the constant cuts to staffing levels and erosion of conditions for rail workers could produce a national rail walkoff by September.
After thirty months of stalled contract negotiations amid the pandemic — all while enduring stagnant wages, heavier workloads, unsafe conditions, and draconian attendance policies — 115,000 fed-up US freight railroad workers are mobilizing for a possible national strike.
Freight rail workers are on the verge of striking for better pay and working conditions, a move that would cap years of stalled negotiations. In a recent vote, 99.5 percent of the members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), a union leading a coalition of freight rail workers in negotiations, authorized a strike.
If it was simply a matter of management versus labor, a strike would likely already have started. But rail workers occupy a peculiar area of labor law, one governed by a century-old federal law that gives Congress and the president wide powers to avert strikes, even though this labor remains the most powerful threat workers have to get better wages and working conditions.
The Surface Transportation Board would get more teeth under a shipper-friendly bill that would reauthorize the agency that regulates freight railroads.
The Freight Rail Shipping Fair Market Act, introduced Tuesday, would give regulators more authority to deal with service emergencies, require railroads to include service standards in contracts with customers, and give shippers the ability to slap fees on railroads that delay privately owned freight cars.
Rail operators in the US will be required to maintain two-person crews under a proposed new rule by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to enhance train safety.
The move goes against industry efforts to reduce the manning of locomotives to one person.
The FRA said it would “carefully evaluate” each request for fewer than two crew members, supporting documentation submitted by a railroad, and the input of employees, communities, and the public.
Supply chain problems could get much, much worse in September if 115,000 railroad workers go on strike. The workers have gone more than two years without a contract, dealing with one cut after another, including job cuts that have led to serious understaffing. The rail companies have been very profitable as they’ve put these and other cuts into place, but they’ve continued to squeeze workers—and they’re making moves that could harm a lot of people beyond their own workers. In fact, many observers say the rail companies have contributed to supply chain problems as they’ve tried to cut costs to the bone.