Rail workers protest for jobs, pay, right to strike

Unions organize rally in Illinois, more planned

By Naomi Craine
August 15, 2022
Some 150 union members and supporters rally July 30 in Galesburg, Illinois, to protest drive by major U.S. rail bosses to impose contract to increase profits off workers’ backs.
Militant/Naomi CraineSome 150 union members and supporters rally July 30 in Galesburg, Illinois, to protest drive by major U.S. rail bosses to impose contract to increase profits off workers’ backs.

GALESBURG, Ill. — More than 150 railroad workers, family members and their supporters joined in the “Galesburg Rally for Rail Labor” here July 30, one of a series of protests being organized by rail workers across the Midwest as part of their fight to win a new contract. This western Illinois town is a major hub for BNSF Railway, with freight lines spreading out in all directions.

The action brought together track maintenance workers, conductors, engineers and workers from other rail crafts. Eleven different unions are currently in contract negotiations together with the seven national Class 1 freight carriers, which includes BNSF, the second largest in the country. Participants marched around Central Park, a large downtown traffic circle, and listened to speakers.

Issues include pay, which has been frozen since 2019; boss demands for increased health insurance costs; job cuts; and the right to strike. The freight rail bosses have slashed their workforce by 29% over the last six years while their profits soared. They are pressing to cut the conductor on road trains, leaving only an engineer as a one-person “crew.”

“This is a fight for the whole labor movement,” Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Division of the AFL-CIO, told the rally.

To make up for lack of enough workers, the bosses have been imposing harsher attendance policies, including increasing the penalties on “high impact days” for “unauthorized” time off — taken by workers when they’re ill or have family responsibilities. Rail workers are often on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with schedules that can run 12 hours, with only 10 hours “rest” before you can be called out again.

BNSF imposed its “Hi-Viz” attendance policy in February. In response, conductors and engineers there voted to authorize a strike, but the company obtained a court injunction barring a walkout. The judge admitted that the new rules are “harsh,” but claimed they were only “minor” changes.

“We need to get rid of this attendance policy,” Marlon Beal, a member of Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Local 391 in Galesburg, told the Militant. “There are workers with 17 years seniority that are quitting.

“We need wage increases,” Beal said. “Prices have gone up and our buying power has gone down. The companies offered just over half of what we were seeking in wages. It’s an insult! When I hired on we paid nothing for health insurance. Now it’s over $200 a month and they want to increase that.

“And they want to get the conductor off the train. That’s safety. Talking with the conductor is what keeps me awake on the road.”

The rail bosses admit that their pay offer doesn’t keep up with the rate of inflation, but claim that it does keep “pace with the broader labor market.”

Dan Hudgins, another Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen member from Galesburg, scoffed at the bosses’ claim that technology such as “positive train control” — which automatically slows or stops trains that go over speed limits — makes it safe to run with a one-person crew. “There’s too much territory to know and too many speed traps,” he said.

“In maintenance, we’ve been losing people like flies,” Tom Modica, a member of Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Local 1532 from Chicago, told the Militant. “We used to have five or six workers on a section gang,” a crew working on a stretch of track, “now it’s down to two or three.”

Rail union members have voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike. But President Joseph Biden July 17 invoked the anti-labor 1926 Railway Labor Act, barring a strike and appointing a Presidential Emergency Board to try to arbitrate a settlement. They’ve got 30 days to propose a settlement. Then another 30-day “cooling off” period is imposed before workers can legally strike.

“If rail workers all came together, we’d have more power than the president and Congress,” Michael Luther, vice president of BMWE Local 783 in Galesburg, said.

“I’m from Galesburg,” said Aaron Kennelly, a production engineer at Case New Holland in Burlington, Iowa, where United Auto Workers members are on strike. Despite being a salaried worker, he has refused to cross the UAW picket line and has become a stalwart of the strike. “BNSF is the main employer in town. I have friends who work there who loved their job, and now they’re miserable, including with the draconian attendance policy. We’ve had rail workers come out to the Case picket line, and I wanted to return the favor.”

Another Rally for Rail Labor will take place in Toledo, Ohio, Aug. 20, and others are being planned in Minneapolis and elsewhere.

Naomi Craine is a member of SMART-TD Local 1494 in Chicago.