Back railroad workers’ fight over schedules, jobs, crew size

By Joe Swanson
October 10, 2022

As the Militant  reported last week, the capitalist media acts like rail workers’ contracts are all settled and done with, but the fact is most rail union members either are just now receiving the tentative agreements to look at and discuss or won’t see them for weeks. 

The two largest rail unions — the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and SMART-Transportation Division, which together operate the trains and organize nearly half of all rail workers — have started to send out a draft of the proposed contract offer after union general chairpersons take questions on it from the membership. SMART-TD says the voting process won’t be finished until mid-November. 

Now, even a number of the bosses’ media is reporting that “it’s not a done deal” and workers are angry. 

The workers biggest complaints — unsafe working conditions and schedules and punitive attendance policies — continue and reportedly are not addressed in the tentative proposal. Under these conditions, rail companies have seen hundreds of workers quit this year. And the rail bosses are demanding further reductions in crew sizes down to one! 

“BNSF came up with this [attendance] policy because of all the cuts they’ve made, and they’re trying to do all they can to get us to pick up the slack. They haven’t hired enough,” Jordan Boone, a BNSF conductor in Galesburg, Illinois, told the Washington Post. Boone has five children and said since the policy went into effect in February, he has missed most of his kids’ sports games, birthdays, recitals and vacations. 

“The time away from family has a big impact on our mental health,” he said. “I know people that have missed doctors’ appointments for months and months because of this policy.” 

The dangers these conditions create for rail workers, as well as those who live by the tracks, has also been driven home by a series of derailments and deaths on the job over the last 30 days. 

Two freight trains collided near Miami International Airport Sept. 24, causing a derailment that put four crew members into the hospital as well as an oil spill that required calling out a hazmat unit. 

SMART-TD reported Sept. 20 that Local 1846 Union Pacific conductor Zachery “Zach” Lara and locomotive engineer Steven Brown had been killed Sept. 8 while working near Mecca, California, in helper service assisting a train up a grade. When they made a reverse move into Bertram siding to put their engine away, the crew had a head-on collision with cars parked in the siding. 

On Aug, 29, UP conductor Mario Aurelio Navarro was killed in a derailment in El Paso, Texas. 

One of the papers reporting the contracts are not a “done deal” is the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. They quote rail workers saying critical issues of scheduling and the attendance policy are not addressed. Jon Hauger, a conductor who works for BNSF out of Houser, Idaho, says the deal’s attempt at providing medical leave is “a complete joke.” 

He said that with what he’s learned about the tentative agreement, he feels it was the result of behind-the-scenes political dealmaking aimed at protecting Democrats ahead of the midterm elections. 

“This was 100% a way to avert a strike,” he said, and he plans to vote against the contract. He said many of his co-workers feel the same way. 

The draft agreement reportedly allows members to get off for a grand total of three routine or preventive health care appointments a year without getting points. However, those appointments must be scheduled at least 30 days in advance, and can take place only on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. 

Workers need to be able to get medical care when they need it, not when it’s convenient for the bosses. The article describes how 51-year-old locomotive engineer Aaron Hiles, who works on the BNSF between Kansas City, Missouri, and Ft. Madison, Iowa, wasn’t feeling well and made a doctor’s appointment. 

But bosses called him to work, and he missed his appointment. A few weeks later he had a heart attack on his train and died. The BNSF attendance policy “is pretty cruel. Everybody is worried about points,” said Hiles’ best friend and union brother, conductor Joel Dixon. “It’s always a question whether Aaron would still be around if he made that appointment.” 

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees union, which organizes about 25,000 track builders and repair workers, can have its members sent hundreds of miles from home for work. A key issue is how and when they get paid for these trips. Jake Forsgren, a BMWE member working out of Lincoln, Nebraska, talked with the Militant  Sept. 24. He reported that there has been some progress with employers on away-from-home expenses. “I’m still on the fence” on voting for the agreement, Forsgren said. “The number of sick days we need so far is not enough and the cap on insurance payments has not been lifted.” 

Rail workers are watching closely what happens with the International Association of Machinists, the only union so far of the 12 involved in the national contract negotiations whose members rejected the deal. The union’s 6,600 locomotive machinists, track equipment mechanics and facility maintenance workers voted it down by 75%. The union has set a strike deadline of Sept. 29 if an improved agreement isn’t reached by then. 

No matter what happens, the fight of the rail workers is far from over.