Rail workers rally to demand new pact
Gene J. Puskar/AP

GALESBURG, Ill.—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.

Members of the Communications Workers, municipal workers unions and others came from near and far, Regan told People’s World in a telephone interview. “One BCTGM member drove all the way from Chicago,” 197 miles.

“The core of the contract is wages” the rail unions proposed to the board of three professional board of arbitrators named to try to work out a solution, Regan added. The unions’ proposal, summarized on their website, calls for a 28% gross wage increase—6%, 6%, 8%, 4%, 4%–spread over its five-year term. Its website also summarized the railroads’ offer.

And the new pact would begin on January 1, 2020, not July 1, thus allowing a bigger bang for the buck during each year. The pact would cover some 115,000 workers combined.

The freight railroads want the board to keep a July 1 starting date for a new contract, retroactive to July 1, 2020, with increases of 2%, 2%, 6%, 3% and 2%. And the carriers want workers to contribute 15% of health care premium costs.

The unions presented an “unified case on wages, healthcare, sick leave and holidays” to the presidential board, which met behind closed doors, union leaders said in their summary.

The presidents of Smart’s Transportation Division—the old United Transportation Union—and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen/Teamsters made a first-ever joint presentation calling for eliminating carrier-imposed attendance policies, adding voluntary rest days for road crews, and larger away-from-home meal allowances.

As he circulated among the Galesburg crowd, Regan reported the workers were most concerned about the carriers’ demand they shoulder more of the costs of health care.

“I heard about a lot of people who spent a lot of time in the hospital” battling the coronavirus, Regan said. Rail workers, deemed “essential” during the pandemic, were “sensitive” to the carriers’ insistence the employees pay more for health care, he said.

The workers are also upset the railroads have been agitating, both in bargaining and before the Federal Railroad Administration, for one-person—at most—crews on long freight trains, even as the railroads both cut workers and earn record profits, said Regan.

“Since 2015, they (workers) told me, the railroads have laid off more than 45,000 people and made more than $140 billion in profits. For example, they’re telling me that in one yard, they used to have 65 workers on call” to perform needed tasks, such as maintenance and inspections “and now they have 40.

“As a result, they’re working round the clock,” he said of remaining workers. The cuts in crews “are intentional and the (freight) service is in trouble,” Regan added.

Neither proposal outline mentioned “crew consist” issues, a longtime argument between the railroads, which want fewer than two crew members per freight train, and the union coalition, which demands at least two, an engineer and a conductor, for safety reasons.

When the railroads “attempted to improperly raise” the crew consist issue during the last of the five days of Emergency Board hearings, July 28, Smart-TD Vice President Brent Leonard opposed their maneuver, the union statement added.

The unions’ summary did not address crew scheduling, and neither outline discussed hiring more workers. But the freight railroads want to implement “automated bid scheduling” where workers would have to sign on by computer to find out what time and where to report for work. The carriers were also silent about overwork.

About the only items both sides agreed upon in their written outlines were to add Dr. Martin Luther King’s Birthday, Juneteenth, and Veteran’s Day as paid holidays and to have 15 days of paid sick leave yearly.

The union presidents said they found some of the carriers’ rhetoric unbelievable, including the freight railroads’ “assertions of how happy their employees are.”

“We also wish every member of every union could have attended the hearings…to testify on their own behalf about the conditions, the struggles, and the situations carriers created for the people whose work brings them profit,” the unions’ joint statement said.

“Through their actions, and in the case of these drawn-out negotiations, their inaction, the carriers’ cavalier and pay-no-heed attitude toward our brothers and sisters who did the work through a pandemic, through job cuts and through an ongoing supply chain crisis could not be clearer. They do not care to either understand or respect their employees.”

Regan expects a PEB recommendation for a settlement by mid-August, which either side can accept or reject. If the workers, by vote, or the carriers say “no,” the board can send its recommendations to the White House and Congress, while a second “cooling-off period” where the workers can’t strike and the railroads can’t lock them out, ticks away.

But “we’re hopeful there’ll be a solution soon” from the presidential board, said Regan. “They (workers) really want a contract” they can live with.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.