Railroad Workers’ Lives Revolve Entirely Around Their Jobs

We spoke with a longtime BNSF conductor about the labor agreement recently imposed on railroad workers by President Biden. He says he feels betrayed by a president he thought was pro-labor and explains how his job has gotten worse over time.

BNSF railworkers in Golden, Colorado. (Joe Amon / the Denver Post via Getty Images)

Rob Kufalk is “always at the mercy of the railroad,” as his wife Mona puts it. “Our life only functions around the railroad.”

A longtime conductor for BNSF Railway, Kufalk is virtually always on call. He must be ready to get to work within ninety minutes from when the company says they need him — which can happen any time, day or night. The family lives forty-five minutes away from the terminal in La Crosse, Wisconsin, that serves as his home base. He spends a lot of time away in hotels in Chicago and Galesburg, Illinois.

Kufalk said the demands on his time have gotten worse over the years, with the industry shedding jobs to cut costs as part of its so-called “precision scheduled railroading” strategy. The situation, he said, has become unbearable since BNSF implemented a new points-based attendance policy, under which employees can be disciplined or fired for missing a call to come into work or taking an unplanned day off.

“They want us available for duty 95 percent of the time now — 24/7/365,” said Kufalk. “I try to plan for doctor’s appointments and other things and it’s almost impossible. Sometimes you just have to lay off and take the hit on the points.”

The lack of paid sick time afforded to workers was at the center of the high-stakes labor dispute between unions and giant railroad companies that came to a head last week. Through more than three years of contract negotiations, the railroads flatly refused to budge and give workers any paid sick days. The companies knew they didn’t really have to negotiate, because politicians in Washington wouldn’t risk allowing rail workers to strike and slow shipments — especially now during the holiday season — at an estimated cost to the economy of $2 billion per day.

President Joe Biden’s administration first intervened in the labor dispute this summer, convening an emergency board to broker a recommended deal that included just one paid sick day for rail workers. Last week, at Biden’s urging, Congress passed a law to block a strike and impose the administration’s labor deal over workers’ objections. A measure offered by progressives to add seven sick days to the deal won some Republican support but still failed in the corporate-controlled Senate.

But as the story of Kufalk and his family demonstrates, the number of sick days granted to railworkers — and the way politicians just helped railroad barons railroad them — isn’t just some political issue. The matter strikes at the systematic devaluing of the people who literally keep the country rolling, who have seen their benefits deteriorate and their schedules get far more extreme as railroad companies have decimated their workforce to juice corporate profits and executives’ payouts.

Kufalk wishes the lawmakers who voted down the sick leave proposal last week would “take the time to learn more about the railroad lifestyle,” in order to balance what’s best for businesses and the economy with the needs of railworkers who sacrifice to make the economy run. If lawmakers spent some time working on the railroads, Kufalk wagers, “they’d be more than happy to go back home to Congress.”

He and Mona both said they voted for Biden in the 2020 presidential campaign based on his promises to be pro-labor. Kufalk clarified he would never have considered voting for Trump; he voted for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in the Democratic primary (“She’s my girl”), while Mona said she voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

But now Kufalk, who said he’s voted to strike several times throughout the contract negotiation process, told the Lever after the Senate vote that he felt “betrayed” by those he helped put in power.

“[Biden] lost a big chance to set himself apart from the Republicans,” he said. “That’s a big failure on his part.”

“There Are So Many Things We Can’t Do”

A former law enforcement officer and dairy farmer before that, Kufalk first got hired by BNSF, the country’s largest freight railroad, in Alliance, Nebraska, working on trains that mostly hauled coal. Now, he works as a conductor out of Wisconsin.

“We haul anything and everything,” he said. “Intermodal, mixed freight, and commodities, military trains, vehicle trains — you name it. If it’s something that goes on a rail car, at some point or another, I’ve probably been on a train with it.”

As for the ins and outs of the job, Kufalk said, “I’m responsible for the paperwork for the train, doing any work that’s associated with the train like set-ups, pickups, or if there’s any troubles. If the train breaks in two or goes into [an] emergency because an air hose separates or anything like that, I’m responsible for putting it back together.”

His duties include overseeing train makeup and compliance, and placement of cars to ensure weight is distributed properly.

The job involves lots of walking, often on unsteady surfaces in all kinds of weather conditions, followed by long periods of waiting around. After shifts that last up to twelve hours, Kufalk said he’s either brought back to his home terminal or to a motel, where he then takes a ten and a half hour rest period.

The rest periods often occur and end at odd times, which can make it difficult to find food. So Kufalk usually travels with a large, insulated lunch container and enough food to get through a trip.

The demands on Kufalk’s time and the unpredictable nature of his schedule means he and Mona lead separate lives.

“My life is separate from Rob,” she said. “I love him so much, and I want to do things with him. We can’t. We don’t have a life where we have nights out with friends. We can’t join a bowling league. There are so many things we can’t do. Our grandsons play hockey. We’ve not been to a hockey game for our grandsons.”

Not Much Thanks

Over time, Kufalk has seen his benefits get worse as part of a broader shift in how management treats the workers.

“I’ve never complained about the pay,” he said. “When I first started out, we had excellent health insurance. We didn’t have to pay any monthly subsidies for it or anything.” He noted that, in 2008, he only had to pay $20 after getting carpal tunnel surgery done on both wrists, adding: “It’s been downhill from there.”

Now, Kufalk said he’s paying about $250 each month for a family insurance plan that also covers his wife, while “a surgery ends up costing around $4,000 or $5,000 out of pocket.”

Kufalk said the railroad companies used to show more gratitude for workers — regularly providing hot meals, particularly on holidays and giving them gift cards they could use at the BNSF store.

“All that stuff’s gone by the wayside,” he said. “Last year, I was down in Galesburg, Illinois, for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve. And there’s nothing at the hotel saying, ‘Come to the depot, we have food there for you.’ . . . That was how much gratification there was to show us thanks for working on holidays.”

Kufalk said it’s part of an increasingly “anti-labor mindset” from BNSF management. “The CEOs need to remember that if it wasn’t for us out there, humping the trains down the rails, they wouldn’t be having their multimillion-dollar salaries,” he added.

Asked about Warren Buffett — the billionaire chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, which owns BNSF — Kufalk didn’t hold back.

“I think our dear Uncle Warren is nothing but a money-grubbing pig,” said Kufalk. Given BNSF’s billions in annual profits, he argued, “[Buffett] could say, ‘I want all my employees [to have] paid 100 percent health insurance, and a very handsome 401(k) and retirement pension, and I want it all paid for,’ and it wouldn’t cost him a dime. He would have the happiest employees ever, and the most productive, and he would reap more benefits, but he’ll never do that. Instead, he’s more worried about where his next money’s coming from, like Scrooge McDuck.”

“Doing More With Less”

Across the railroad industry, companies have made devaluing labor and reducing their workforce a core part of their business model, in order to maximize profits and enrich shareholders.

Under the guise of precision scheduled railroading, a theory pioneered in the 1990s, railroad companies have gutted their head counts while vastly increasing the average length of trains in order to limit their “operating ratios,” or how much they spend running the railroads.

“We have a lot of trains now that are right around that top 10,000-foot length,” Kufalk said, explaining that precision scheduled railroading effectively means workers “doing more with less.”

Over the past six years, large US freight rail companies have cut their workforce by nearly 30 percent.

The substantially smaller workforce has meant less maintenance and dirtier cars, according to Kufalk. “We’re running with more cracked windshields, heaters that aren’t necessarily working right, we’re having more breakdowns than what we used to have,” he said.

It also means slower shipments. “On weekends now, we are tying trains down on the main line because there’s not enough crews to take to the next destination,” said Kufalk. “That exacerbates the problem, because then they have to call a bunch of crews right away when they’re rested to go and get those trains moving again. It just makes the crew shortage even worse.”

The drive to reduce worker numbers has culminated in onerous attendance policies like the new points-based system from BNSF, which requires workers to be available around-the-clock if and when management needs them.

Under the policy, workers start with thirty points and are docked points if they fail to respond to a call from management or if they need to take an unscheduled day off. Losing too many points can mean disciplinary action or firing.

The BNSF policy has led to mass resignations — with the situation getting so bad that the company has been offering $10,000 bonuses to employees to defer their retirements for six months, according to Kufalk.

“The railroads are trying to hire people, but they can’t keep the people they’re hiring,” he said.

Kufalk was scheduled to retire in December. He agreed to take a bonus and will work now through April next year.

“I’ll Take a Hit on the Points”

Railroad companies dragged out negotiations over a new contract with unions for more than three years, refusing to offer workers any paid sick time, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees currently have little choice but to work while sick — often in close, confined quarters.

The railroads have argued in the press that workers have ample vacation time, despite not having paid sick days.

Kufalk, meanwhile, noted that in his seventeenth year with BNSF, he currently has four weeks of vacation — a generous amount by American standards — but the company determines when he can use most of this time off. As a result, it’s still difficult to schedule visits to the doctor or dentist, he said.

The lack of paid sick time has been a key sticking point in negotiations between unions and the railroads. In the recent contract negotiations, unions initially pushed the railroads to grant workers as many as fifteen sick days — and ultimately demanded as few as four. The companies held firm, refusing to pay any sick time at all.

Under the terms of the deal negotiated between Biden’s emergency board, railroad companies, and unions, workers are set to get a single paid sick day a year.

At Biden’s urging, Congress passed legislation last week to impose his deal over the objections of workers who were ready to go on strike. The Senate failed to pass an amendment offered by Sanders and backed by Warren that would have given railroad workers seven paid sick days. They will only get one.

Next year, Kufalk will retire with an extra bonus. He and Mona are planning to sell their house and move somewhere on the water. For the moment, he’s nearly always on call, but he’s not missing any more important days with his family.

Kufalk said he “refused to go to work this Thanksgiving,” and used his last remaining vacation day for the year. “I’m not going to be working Christmas either,” he said. “I’ll take a hit on the points. I’m not going to give them the satisfaction.”

This weekend, Mona said, Kufalk will take a point deduction so the family can — for the first time — watch their grandkids play in a hockey tournament.

“What are they going to do — fire him?” she said.