It’s tough to make headlines these days between more news of Trump’s treasonous actions, the aftermath of the Queen’s death and Ukrainian victories over the Russians. But floating to the top of the headlines in the next few days will be the looming specter of a nationwide rail strike beginning Friday after midnight.

If you only read headlines or the first half of most news articles, you’d be forgiven for believing that most of the hoopla deals with greedy workers, a strike’s potential impact the economy and the upcoming mid-term elections. Little would you know that the main issues are not money, but the health, sanity and lives of rail workers — and the general public.

The main issues are the health, sanity and lives of rail workers — and the general public.

Roughly 40% of the nation’s long-distance trade moves by rails. A strike that idles 7,000 trains daily and costs the economy up to $2 billion per day would make the current supply chain problems seem like a warm spring shower compared to the hurricane force supply problems and manufacturing shutdowns that a nation-wide rail strike would bring.

Democrats, who are finally seeing some light at the end of the mid-term election tunnel, are terrified that a national rail strike will reverse their political fortunes just weeks before the November elections. Biden is spending the week making desperate calls to the rail companies and unions attempting to find a resolution to the dispute. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin and Transportation Secretary Pet Buttigieg are also deeply involved in the negotiations.

Because rail workers are covered by a different labor law than most of the nation’s private sector workers, Biden has the power to block a strike by naming a board to try to come up with a compromise labor contract. The Board has met and come up with a “compromise” that sounds so good on paper that Republican Senators have introduced legislation that would force the unions to accept the terms. And why not? The terms don’t sound bad at first glance:

A presidential panel looking at that labor dispute recommended the two sides agree to a five-year contract that includes an immediate 14% raise, backpay from 2020, and a 24% pay increase over the course of the contract. That’s less than the 31% in raises over five years the union is seeking, but more than the 17% previously offered by railroad management.

The Real Issue

But news to everyone who think that all labor dispute come down to greedy workers threatening employers and the nation’s economic security for a few more bucks: this dispute is not just about the money, it’s about scheduling and burnout. It’s about rail workers being held hostage by rail companies who yearn for the robber-baron days of yesteryear.

It’s about rail workers being held hostage by rail companies who yearn for the robber-baron days of yesteryear.

But it’s hard to get that message out to people, especially since you’ll search hard and mostly in vain to find any interviews with actual rail workers who can describe being held hostage by the rail companies.

What are we talking about?

Engineers and conductors are particularly concerned about a new points-based attendance policy at BNSF, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway. More than 700 union employees have quit since the policy’s rollout in February, but the railroads insist that it is necessary to ensure enough train operators are available to work, because they have been dealing with labor shortages. Workers can be terminated if they run out of points, even in the case of a family emergency. Missing work on certain high-impact days can mean losing half of their allotted points.

“We’re facing the potential of a strike, because the railroad refuses to grant one single day of sick time,” said Ron Kaminkow, a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, one of the unions that has not reached an agreement. “It’s about the phone rings at 2 a.m. to be at work at 4 a.m., after just 10 hours of rest prior. It’s about not knowing when you’re coming home and being penalized with discipline — up to firing — if you need to go to the doctor.

Union Pacific has similar policies.

The Presidential panel declined to address the scheduling issue, mistakenly assuming that the pay increases would take care of the problems and any other issues can be handled through the grievance process. But the engineers and conductors routines who get penalized for taking time off, even for emergencies, disagree. The unions have been negotiating over scheduling issues for the past three years.

As the Washington Post notes, “Workers can be terminated if they run out of points, even in the case of a family emergency. Missing work on certain high-impact days can mean losing half of their allotted points.”

Aside from spending weeks away from the families at a moment’s notice, the staffing policies have safety implications with workers burning out and potentially coming to work sick or fatigued because they lose points if they take sick leave after being called in to work.

The Washington Post reports that “Labor groups say workers have been fired for going to routine doctor’s appointments or family members’ funerals. Conductors and engineers can be on call for 14 consecutive days, for up to 12 hours daily. They also don’t get sick days.”

All but two of the 12 unions that represent railroad workers have accepted the panel’s deal, but their contracts did not deal with the scheduling issues. Instead, they have “me too” agrrangements that will adopt whatever resolution the other unions negotiate.

The two unions unions who have not reached agreement, the SMART Transportation Division and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, representing 57,000 engineers and conductors are holding out and the other unions will likely strike in solidarity if it comes to a shutdown.

The unions have already made some concessions. They’re now just asking for unpaid sick days. (Imagine the situation when you’ll even accept unpaid sick days!) The rail companies refuse to budge.

Why?

What’s going on? The rail companies, in a never-ceasing drive to increase profits, have drastically reduced their employment over the past several years leaving them no cushion for labor shortages or even illness. (In a time of COVID!) The U.S. Surface Transportation Board has reported the largest freight railroads in the U.S. have reduced their workforce by 29% in the last six years. The only way they can make that work is forcing their remaining crews to be on call almost all the time.

Precision Scheduled Railroading

Is basically the railroad version of lean production—the methodology of systematic speedup and job-cutting that caught on in manufacturing in the ’80s and spread to many industries.

The railroads have done it by cutting less-profitable routes; closing and consolidating railyards, repair barns, and other facilities; running fewer, longer trains; and laying off tens of thousands of workers while demanding the remaining workers do more.

All of this has led to skyrocketing profits for the companies and burnout for the workers.

Railroads have a well-earned reputation for running like a military organization resisting any interference by those troublesome unions or labor laws and norms that other companies have met for decades. It is still not uncommon for rail companies to illegally punish workers for getting injured on the job.  Most companies who do that try to hide it and pretend they’re punishing workers for some other, more legitimate reasons.  But the rail operators were unique in boasting that punishing workers who get hurt on the job is the only way to make sure their employees work safely.

What is to be done?

President Biden, in addition to his general support of labor, is despirate to resolve this conflict that has the potential of destroying the Democrat’s mid-term prospects.  But forcing rail employees to accept a deal, aside from exploding the President’s image as “the most labor-friendly President” in the history of mankind, would ultimately be counter-productive. Because anyone following the economy these days know about “the great resignation.” Workers are not putting up with low pay and lousy working conditions any more. There are plenty of other, better jobs to be had.

And it’s already happening: Where it was once unheard of to quit before retirement from a railroad job, “more than 700 [BSNF] union employees have quit since the policy’s rollout in February, but the railroads insist that it is necessary to ensure enough train operators are available to work, because they have been dealing with labor shortages.”

Ultimately,  nothing good will happen unless the President and Congress convince the companies to listen to the workers’ concerns and address the scheduling issues.

As Sharon Block, Executive Director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, points out:

“Workers are supposed to be able to stand up for what’s important to them and I would hope that the public would understand that things like scheduling and sick leave are important.

These are people who have worked really hard in tough circumstances under the past couple of years. They should be the masters of their own fate” through collective bargaining, she said.

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