Teamsters: 23,000 freight train engineers voting on strike authorization
Gene J. Puskar / AP

CLEVELAND—Some 23,000 rail freight engineers nationwide, Teamsters members who—like other rail unionists—are irate at freight railroads’ refusal to discuss workers’ needs and demands, are voting on whether to authorize a strike.

If the authorization passes, it would give the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen/Teamsters leadership the OK to approve a strike should federal mediation and arbitration fail to solve the ongoing struggle of 14 unions with the nation’s freight railroads over a new contract.

The strike authorization, which does not necessarily mean a strike will occur, is important. You can’t run a freight train without an engineer—even though an exec at one big freight carrier, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), proposed several years ago doing just that, with workerless freight trains.

Ballots were mailed on June 24 with a July 12 deadline at 10 am for workers postmarking votes to the National Mediation Board (NMB), which governs labor-management relations at railroads and airlines. The voting engineers work at 17 railroads, including big Class 1 freight railroads such as BNSF, Union Pacific, CSX, the Illinois Central, and Conrail. That list includes U.S. subsidiaries of Canada’s two national rail carriers.

Key issues are erratic and long hours, pay, job safety, and health protection—especially against the coronavirus—and rail carriers’ constant push for one-person crews on all freight trains, regardless of length and regardless of the safety hazard caused by removing the second worker, the conductor. That’s produced short-staffing, too, at the big carriers.

The NMB has invoked a 30-day cooling-off period for the two sides which expires July 18. A second 30-day cooling-off period would occur if Democratic President Joe Biden creates a Presidential Emergency Board to try to craft a solution. If that fails, the two sides could invoke “self-help”—a lockout by the railroads or a strike by engineers.

“Let me emphasize that authorization does not mean a strike will occur, nor does it mean all railroads may be struck,” BLE&T President Dennis Pierce said in a statement. “Now is the time to deliver a unified message to the carriers that their contract proposals are unacceptable to BLE&T’s membership and that we stand united.”

The struggle of the 14 unions with the carriers is important because railroads are key carriers of bulk freight—from oil and gas to cars and corn—in the nation’s increasingly strained supply chain.

In one example, reported by Railroad Workers United, a rank-and-file organization covering all rail crafts, BNSF limited car shipments to California along its southern route—the nation’s busiest—through July 31. Railroad honchos blamed weather problems and a shortage of workers for the service cuts. RWU has repeatedly retorted the Class I freight railroads, including BNSF, brought the shortage on themselves by massive job cuts in the last decade.

And in a second example that RWU cited, Foster Farms, a big animal feed producer in Livingston, Calif., convinced the federal Surface Transportation Board—successor to the old Interstate Commerce Commission—to order Union Pacific to provide enough 100-car freight trains to haul the corn from the Midwest that Foster needs to convert to feed.

“This STB order might just open the floodgates for other shippers to ask for similar measures, as hundreds of shippers nationwide are desperate for better service, and may plead their case to the STB for similar action on their behalf,” Railroad Workers United commented. “How in the world will UP and the other Class 1s be able to comply? When they fail, they need to be fined for violation of the law.”

The day before the ballots were mailed, members of another of the 14 rail unions, the Transportation Communications Union/Machinists, took their case against the carriers’ refusal to bargain to Capitol Hill. Members told lawmakers of “the need to get all railroaders a raise and a fair contract,” IAM reported. Union President Bob Martinez joined them in those congressional briefings.

The engineers, in town for IAM’s Legislative Conference, got a special welcome from House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. The lawmaker “has long challenged the Class 1 railroads for their endless greed and treatment of their workforce,” TCU-IAM said.

“DeFazio was the first person on Capitol Hill to really get it. He knows how this PSR (precision scheduled railroading) model” which runs trains with fewer workers “is hurting our railroads, rail service, and rail workers. Our guys were extremely glad to finally meet one of the leaders that’s really chastising the Class 1 CEOs,” said Don Grissom, assistant general president of TCU’s Carmen.

“Our folks were able to speak directly to the key leaders that can change our members lives for the better–and THAT is what being a union is all about,” TCU-IAM President Artie Maratea told the parent union, in its website posting.


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.