Reported by Aaron Gordon for Vice.
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 situation is complicated and it is still far from certain what will happen next. But, should a strike actually take place, it would have a huge impact on the American economy, which is exactly why the government will try to avoid it.
What are the issues?
Several issues that have been bubbling for a long time are finally coming to a head. The railroads and unions have been negotiating a new contract since 2019; the various unions representing freight rail workers generally bargain as a coalition against the biggest rail carriers in the country (only one, Canadian Pacific, is negotiating entirely separately). Years of negotiation, interrupted for a period by a global pandemic, have yielded little agreement.
Since the contract ended, wages have not budged while negotiations are underway. Raises agreed to in a new contract would be retroactive to when the old contract expired, but the parties are far apart on what those raises would be. According to the Transportation Trades Department, a group that represents among others the 13 rail worker unions involved in negotiations, the unions proposed an increase of 31.2 percent over five years, while the railroads reportedly want 17 percent.
Health care is also a sticking point. The unions are basically after the status quo, but the railroads want employees to pay a bigger share of the costs. According to Railway Age contributing writer Frank Wilner, employees contribute $228.89 monthly towards their coverage regardless of family size, while the employers pay about $1,600. The railroads want employees to be paying more, especially employees with families.
But the biggest issues have to do with working conditions. Broadly, workers feel the railroads, responding to investor demands, are exploiting their workers and customers for the sake of ever-increasing profits. Workers have been asked to do more with less, which they say is making the railroads less safe. New attendance policies make working for the railroad a living hell. And shippers who send goods along the rail are equally fed up with the railroads for degrading service standards, a result of the same cost-cutting measures workers are angered by.
The railroads are also pushing for one-person train crews on many routes, saying the second person is no longer necessary with modern technology and will enable them to compete with (hypothetical) driverless trucks, a contention many workers disagree with and say will make the railroad less safe and service even worse. Meanwhile, the railroad companies report record earnings and profits.
For their part, the railroads say none of the workers’ concerns are legitimate, that safety is as good as it’s ever been, that there may be isolated service problems, but broadly service standards are high and everything is fine. Insofar as there is a problem, the railroads blame crew shortages due to pandemic-related reasons, not from slashing more than 25 percent of the industry’s workforce in the years prior to the pandemic.
So although there are specific issues at play, they are in service of a broader feeling among the workforce that management has created a “toxic workplace,” in the words of BLET president Dennis Pierce, to pad the bottom line. There is anger and frustration; they’ve been forced to work through the pandemic as essential workers only to be infantilized with even more draconian attendance policies. Which is why the workers have overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike.
But they cannot strike. Not yet at least. And the reason is because the federal government considered railroad workers essential long before the pandemic—to such a degree it felt the need to intervene in labor disputes.
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