On Sept. 15, railroad union members reached a tentative agreement with railroad companies, narrowly avoiding a strike intended to protest poor working conditions and an inflexible, demanding attendance policy. After a full day of negotiations, in which President Joe Biden even called in to support the workers’ demands for better working conditions and sick time off without retaliation, the nation breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that they had dodged the strike and its inevitable economic consequences. However, now workers have had a chance to read through the tentative agreement, some say there were too many concessions made, and a strike could still be possible. In the interim, the unions are enforcing a strike injunction, dragging out the voting past the midterm elections.
When the agreement was first reached, rail workers like Michael Paul Lindsey, who had been opposed to the Presidential Emergency Board agreement, said they were all still in the dark—union leaders had reached a decision without workers actually knowing what was agreed upon. Once the agreement language was finally released at the beginning of the week of Sept. 19, workers were not happy.
“The TA additions are worse than the PEB,” tweeted Ross Grooters, a Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union member. “I don’t need questions answered. I need for all of us to VOTE NO!”
Many of the workers were concerned that the unpopular Automated Bid Scheduling was renegotiated back into the agreement in exchange for “voluntary off days.” The scheduling system threatens to reduce yard workers’ schedules to constantly on-call, just like engineers and conductors.
Mark Burrows, a locomotive engineer in the industry from 1974 until he retired in 2016, said that railroad carriers and union representatives made concessions at the last minute. While the tentative agreement includes a provision that workers should not be penalized for going to the doctor, workers will only be allowed to go Tuesday through Thursday and must give 30 days advance notice. If they fulfill those conditions, points and merits will not be taken off.
“The idea that we should be celebrating that … I don’t know if that’s much to celebrate,” Burrows said.
According to Burrows, the agreement also mentions that people who work on call will have extra days off, but that will be negotiated locally through different carriers and terminals.
“As usual with a lot of these national agreements, they put things in that are kind of vague and gray and leave it open to be fine-tuned with respective carriers,” Burrows said. “In terms of their working conditions, their quality of life on and off the job, I’m going to say this is a token concession, and many see it in the same way. It’s going to be far from sufficient to satisfy most rail workers’ grievances.”
Burrows also said that part of the reason the agreement was successful was because it promised two days off. However, the fine print specified it as only 48 hours off, robbing workers of a conventional 60-hour weekend.
Rail worker schedules are usually unpredictable, leading to canceled plans and sometimes waiting around the phone to get called for a job. The lack of predictability and consideration for their personal lives is at the forefront of the workers’ demands and is the primary reason why a growing number of railroad workers have left the industry. Over the last six years, 45,000 workers have left, accounting for nearly 29% of the industry.
More than 700 union workers quit when BNSF, one of the largest freight railroads in North America, instituted a points-based and oppressive attendance system in February. Though the system was revised in May, other railways, such as Union Pacific, have also adopted the schema. In this attendance system, workers are assigned a set number of points, and each time a worker needs to take time off, regardless of the reason, they are deducted points. As a result, many workers cannot take days off for funerals or doctor appointments.
If the unions strike, around 40% of the nation’s trade could be stalled with more than 7,000 trains paused. It could cost the economy up to $2 billion per day. General chairpersons will now review the agreement, and the final document will go out for ratification in the next few weeks, with final votes to be tabulated by the end of November or beginning of December.
“It would really be prudent of all the parties involved to avoid things coming to [a strike],” Burrows said. “It would really be in the public’s interest, business community’s interest, society’s interest that the rail carriers back off from their intransigence and start treating rail workers with the respect and dignity they deserve, they’ve earned, and that they’re entitled to as human beings.”