The US Could Be on the Verge of a Nationwide Railroad Strike

Ross Grooters

With railroad companies refusing to offer employees a favorable contract, 115,000 railworkers could soon launch a nationwide strike. We spoke with a train engineer about the industry’s brutal working conditions — and why a strike could spread like wildfire.

A BNSF Railway classification yard in Denver, Colorado. (Acton Crawford / Unsplash)

Interview by
Joe DeManuelle-Hall

Rail unions in the United States representing 115,000 workers have been locked in negotiations with rail carriers for over two years. This week, a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), convened by the Biden administration to intervene in the dispute, issued its recommendations for a settlement. The railroads have stated their support for the deal, so the outcome is now in the hands of the twelve unions that represent freight railworkers — as well as Congress, which could intervene to force a deal.

But many railworkers are opposed to the PEB recommendations, which they view as lopsided in favor of railroad companies. They point to their deteriorating working conditions — including inhumane schedules and “lean production” policies that pile on work and threaten their safety and that of the public  — and ask why they should accept givebacks when companies don’t even respect their labor. Indeed, in the PEB recommendations, the board reports that “the Carriers maintain that capital investment and risk are the reasons for their profits, not any contributions by labor.”

Some workers are now talking about a national strike — an action that that hasn’t occurred since 1991 and that could have massive economic and political effects during an election year and an uptick in labor activity.

In a conversation with Joe DeManuelle-Hall of Labor Notes, Iowa-based freight engineer Ross Grooters discussed how working conditions on the railroad have gotten worse, why he opposes the deal on the table, and what a national rail strike could look like in the United States.

Joe DeManuelle-Hall

First off, can you talk about what it’s like to work on the railroad? What does a railroad engineer do? What does a typical day look like?

Ross Grooters

Average day — that’s funny. For some people that’s part of the appeal, but it presents its own challenges.

I’m a locomotive engineer. I’ve been in the operating crafts for over nineteen years. There is no “typical” to my job. Most operating crafts [conductors and engineers] are on call 24-7 all year, with little if any scheduled time off.

We work on call. You’ll gradually climb up as the person at the top gets called to work, sometimes waiting without knowing when you’ll go to work for hours if not days on end. When you’re up, you’ll typically have an hour and a half to report to work. And then when you do, you might work a morning one day, an afternoon the next, and an overnight after that.

We can operate a train for up to twelve hours, but sometimes we might be out there fifteen or, recently, twenty or more hours, waiting to be relieved. A lot of people also work “over the road” — they’ll go out of town, stay twelve to twenty-four-plus hours, and then get called for another train to go home. You can imagine some of the challenges that presents. It’s not an easy lifestyle.

In a typical job, you have weekends — so that’s 104 days a year you know you’re not working. We don’t have those. With nineteen years on the job, I’m looking at four weeks’ vacation and eleven personal days. And this is one of the reasons you’re seeing so many people leaving.

There’s no quality to that time when you’re sitting not knowing when you’re going to work. There’s a lot of uncompensated time that’s just not your time. It used to be that compensation and benefits made up for that, but that’s no longer the case.

Joe DeManuelle-Hall

The rail industry has changed dramatically over the last decade or so. Can you talk about how business models have shifted and what effects that’s had on working conditions?

Ross Grooters

Increasingly, the railroads are trying to have the workers do more work, faster.

The why is capital and profit, and in particular Wall Street speculation. The railroads were viewed as this untapped profit source for venture capital to go in and really tighten the screws.

In many ways the lean production that you’ve seen in other industries, like auto, hadn’t yet come to the rails. This is in part because we had some amount of regulation. There was a recognition that it’s an unsafe job and that it takes planning and workers with skills and knowledge to perform this job. At some point, there was a deliberate decision to erode that.

In the last six years or so, precision scheduled railroading (PSR) has become the program. It’s a pretty Orwellian term, really. The “precision” is just: how precisely can we cut the business, and in particular labor, to the bone and have it still function? And railroads cut way too deep.

We have lost tens of thousands of railroad workers [to layoffs and attrition], and much of that work has gone to subcontractors or smaller switching operations that are in many cases nonunion.

The trains have grown. When I started, a one-hundred-car, six-thousand-foot train was a pretty lengthy train. Now they can get to two hundred cars or more. Two miles long is not uncommon, and three miles is pretty commonplace.

In the past, you’d have adequate time for breaks. There was a recognition that safety had to be a major focus and that we had to take time to plan our work and work with one another. Now the safety focus has gone out the window. We work much harder to save a little time here and there, which comes with a lot more mental and physical fatigue.

Joe DeManuelle-Hall

This round of rail negotiations has been going on during some of the most trying times for railworkers. What have been some of the biggest issues that union members want to see resolved in bargaining?

Ross Grooters

The issues vary from craft to craft, but across all crafts, people are fatigued. They’re looking for something that reflects the amount of work that they’re putting in. It’s hard to stomach when you’re being told that you’re not worth more. We’ve been working hard and have made these companies billions of dollars and are being told that we don’t deserve anything from that.

In the operating crafts, for conductors and engineers represented by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers–Transportation Division (SMART-TD), the biggest issues have been attendance policies. Unnegotiated, unbargained attendance policies have taken hold and limited people’s ability to take time off. Railroaders want a quality of life and time off and to be able to enjoy what we earn.

In some of the other crafts, like maintenance of way, workers have been hit really hard with subcontracting and policies that affect their cost of living. They’re on the road and might be working for weeks away from home and suffering with paying for their own lodging. Demands like these can get pretty specific within the crafts.

Joe DeManuelle-Hall

One of the constant tensions in rail unionism — going back as long as it’s been around — is cross-craft collaboration. Rail unions don’t always even negotiate together with the employers. How has that played out in this round of negotiations?

Ross Grooters

The best development has been all the crafts bargaining together, which many of us have been pushing for years.

I believe that we’ve been able to move this along more quickly than if we hadn’t moved together. I don’t think that we would have been released from mediation [the previous step in the bargaining process that governs railroad disputes] to get to the PEB today if the crafts hadn’t been united.

Although that is largely speculation, because of how closed-off negotiations are — one of the flaws right now is that we don’t have rank-and-file involvement in the entire bargaining process from start to finish.

Joe DeManuelle-Hall

The railroads have been operating for several years with this rigid, lean production model and have been continuing to refine it. How does that fit into negotiations? What are the employers looking to get out of the bargaining process?

Ross Grooters

The employers stated in their bargaining proposal that one of the big priorities was going after the crew size in the operating crafts. Typically on a freight train, you have two people operating the train. They’d love nothing more than to get that number down to one.

It’s hard for me to look at what the carriers proposed and not get angry. It seems so outlandish. Much of what they proposed was around wages and health care but working conditions too. I have trouble looking at their proposal in a way that doesn’t see it as an attempt to break the unions and union solidarity.

Joe DeManuelle-Hall

This week, Joe Biden’s Presidential Emergency Board put out their recommendations for a contract settlement. What’s in them, and what’s not in them?

Ross Grooters

I would consider this a concessionary agreement. It doesn’t help us build back or bring us up to a better standard of living or quality of life. More than that, it just gives away more in a tight labor market where rail carriers are having trouble hiring.

In terms of health care, it would remove the cap on monthly premiums. On holidays — it’s baffling, but the PEB came back with a recommendation that’s even less than what the carriers proposed. And even with the wages, it’s not enough. We are doing more work, with fewer people, faster, and it’s making the companies record dividends and record profits. This PEB recommendation doesn’t reflect that.

For things that were craft specific, like being able to have a ruling on these attendance policies, the PEB recommended the unions take them out of negotiations entirely and put them into a separate process that hasn’t worked for us so far.

Joe DeManuelle-Hall

A major complaint from railroaders is that you don’t get any paid sick leave. How does the proposed agreement address this?

Ross Grooters

The PEB addressed it by saying that we don’t deserve to have paid sick time. Currently if you take a sick day, it’s uncompensated, and it’s held against you on whatever attendance policy the companies are choosing to use at the time.

Joe DeManuelle-Hall

Now that these recommendations have been made, it’s up to the unions and the railroads to decide what to do with them. What happens next?

Ross Grooters

Some unions will have one member, one vote around ratifying this, and some will not. As a BLET member, my expectation is that we’ll see a vote.

Based on what I’m hearing people say about the recommendations, my expectation is that people will vote no. The question is whether there will be enough turnout to show unanimity in opposition. And it’s my job and fellow union members’ job to get people out to vote on it.

Here’s the way I see it: we either continue to accept what we’re being handed by rail carriers through a very limiting and archaic process with the Railway Labor Act (RLA), which constrains our ability to take on-the-job action, or we decide to take a stand. I’ve had more conversations with people across crafts and unions and states during this round of bargaining than ever before. I think we need to keep doing that and organizing, so that, whether now or in the future, we’re ready to take action.

Joe DeManuelle-Hall

There hasn’t been a national freight rail strike in the United States since 1991, when President George H.W. Bush ordered workers back to work after less than twenty-four hours on strike. What would a freight rail strike look like today? How fragile is the system?

Ross Grooters

I think it’d have an even bigger impact today, because of the state of the rail industry and how carriers have damaged themselves. It’s certainly more fragile today than it was five or ten years ago.

Within days, you’d see things shut down. We’ve seen a preview of this in the supply chain bottlenecks. Things like construction times and the electrical grid could be affected. We’ve also seen previews of this around natural disasters like floods and snowstorms, where they’ve slowed down rail operations. I can’t even imagine what it’d look like, but it’d be pretty wide reaching.

There’s a book called Ninety Percent of Everything that talks about how you look around a room, and 90 percent of everything you’re looking at — whether the raw materials or the actual item itself — are things that came through a shipping container, overseas, and then through rail.

We transport what are called “shutdown cars,” which means that there’s some commodity or product in there that if it does not get delivered, that business will shut down. Those people will be sitting there with nothing to do. And some of that happens today under normal operations but happening all over the country all at once — I can’t even begin to get at all of the effects.

Additionally, I’ve got to believe that it would have ramifications for other groups of workers as well. This is one of the reasons the RLA exists and limits our ability to go on strike — because strikes could have something of an infectious effect and spread outside of rail labor.