LINCOLN, Neb. — “We surprised Katie Farmer this morning, she did not expect us to greet her with our contract demands — safer working conditions and sick-days-time-off,” Jakob Forsgren, a welder and track repair worker and chair of local Lodge 1320 of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, told the Militant at an information picket line here Nov. 2.
Farmer is the president and CEO of the BNSF Railway, the largest of the five Class 1 U.S.-owned railroads. She was boarding her private train in Red Oak, Iowa, two hours east of Lincoln.
Forsgren and his BMWE co-workers then drove back to Lincoln and teamed up with more rail workers, members of the BMWE and Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — Transportation Division (SMART-TD), Nebraska AFL-CIO President Sue Martin and others to picket here where Farmer’s train was scheduled to pass through.
The information picket was held on a walkway bridge over the BNSF main line, near the downtown business area and the city’s entertainment and sports arena, which was hosting the state high school volleyball finals. This gave the rail workers an opportunity to explain what their unions were fighting for to people from all over the state.
Like other rail bosses, Farmer backs slashing operating craft “crews” to one person on the road, and, where possible, she said in May, to move to ground-based conductors, responsible for multiple trains. She claimed this is made possible by the introduction of Positive Train Control, a system which can stop a train and is designed to prevent train-to-train collisions.
As many conductors and engineers have explained to the Militant in recent years, workers are not against technology that can make train handling safer, but the bosses use these aids to slash jobs at the expense of safety.
“The rail bosses are trying to do more with less manpower,” track worker Mat Tietsort said. “They say they’re hiring, but I don’t see it. On the territory I’m on, there’s just three workers per section, and now there’s one less section covering the same amount of track.”
This means each track crew is now responsible for maintaining five to six times more trackage, Forsgren said.
“And our wages aren’t keeping up with the inflation rate. We’re the lowest-paid rail worker craft. We’ve fallen further behind in every contract since I hired on in 2006,” BMWE member Nick Borges said. “We work 24/7, giving up weekends and holidays to keep up the track, and they show no appreciation for that.”
“It’s our own actions that are decisive,” said Naomi Craine, a SMART-TD member who came from Chicago to join the picket. She is the Socialist Workers Party candidate for governor of Illinois. “Workers need to use their union to fight to have control over job conditions, to use the collective power of the union ranks to enforce safe conditions, including stopping work until any hazardous situation is resolved.”
Unions fight for contract, respect
Over 115,000 rail workers across the country, organized by 12 different unions, have been seeking a new contract from a coalition of the five Class 1 railroads and a number of smaller carriers since November 2019. The bosses biggest help against the unions is the anti-labor Railway Labor Act that ensnarls workers in years of government-enforced mediation, “cooling off” periods and more before they can strike. This year the Joe Biden White House convened a Presidential Emergency Board, which imposed a final round of mediation and issued its own proposed agreement.
Now each of the unions has been involved in a final round of negotiations with the bosses for a contract. Seven of the smaller rail unions have ratified their agreements and three, including the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, the third largest rail union with over 23,000 members, have voted it down. Those three will try again to get an acceptable deal. The two largest unions, SMART-TD and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, with some 60,000 members, are voting now, with the outcome to be announced Nov. 21. These are the unions whose members operate the trains.
If any one of the unions goes on strike, all 12 are pledged to honor their picket lines and shut down the country’s railroads.
BMWE President Tony Cardwell has told the union membership that as of now, there is no progress in negotiations. The rail bosses flat-out refused to grant paid sick days. If that doesn’t change, he said, we will strike no later than Nov. 20, and will get the word out so all rail workers and others can join the picket lines.
The rail bosses have treated the big issues before the workers with disdain. To boost profits, they’ve cut the workforce in a dangerous industry where crew size, workers’ cooperation and enough rest is crucial. They’ve imposed schedules that put workers on call 24/7 and adopted highly punitive attendance policies. They’ve denied paid sick time.
One result has been an uptick in derailments, injuries and deaths. A Norfolk Southern freight train, nearly 3 miles long with 237 rail cars, including a number of 89-foot auto racks, derailed Nov. 1, putting 22 of them on the ground in a Ravenna Township working-class neighborhood in Ohio. The derailed cars came close to plowing into people’s homes and businesses.
One of the cars landed in Bert McEwen’s boat in his backyard. “That one that was on the boat, it could’ve took out the garage and the camper and probably part of my house,” he told the press.
On Nov. 2, a Canadian National freight train derailed and spilled dangerous hydrochloric acid in St. James Parish, Louisiana. One tank car broke open, forcing the evacuation of 200 homes.
From 1990, the first year the Bureau of Transportation Statistics began tracking derailments and injuries on a yearly basis, to 2021 there have been 54,539 accidents in which a train derailed. That’s an average of 1,704 a year. Those derailments led to 5,547 people being injured.
Will there be a strike?
With the threat of a rail strike looming, bosses nationwide are screaming for government intervention.
Biden’s Labor Secretary, Marty Walsh, who touts himself as a friend of the workers and served as the former head of the Boston Building and Construction Trades Council, told rail workers, “Congress will have to take action to avert a strike in our country.”
The Railway Labor Act also mandates that labor action can only take place when Congress is in session and able to intervene swiftly.
Regardless of what happens — a contract agreement is reached, rail workers decide to strike, or Congress intervenes — rail workers will have to continue to fight to defend themselves from the ongoing assault of the rail bosses. Key to that is organizing our unions to build, extend and strengthen the labor movement, and use that union power to advance the interests of all working people.
Naomi Craine, a SMART-TD conductor in Chicago, contributed to this article.