rail strike

And we have an agreement….

I was over at the Department of Labor building yesterday and there were paper signs taped up all over the 2nd (Executive) floor directing outside visitors to various hard-to-find conference rooms. For those who can read the tea leaves in the Frances Perkins building, this was a sure sign that there were unfamiliar people in the building attending a whole lot of meetings, or in this case, negotiations. And indeed, the visitors were the rail unions and the rail company overlords who were feverishly meeting in an attempt to reach a last minute settlement that would avoid a crippling nationwide rail strike.

Pending ratification of the agreement by union members, the negotiations seem to have borne fruit, although is too early to tell whether the agreement reached last night will be enough to satisfy union members when they go to the polls to vote on the agreement. According to the Washington Post, “Union leaders had pushed for 15 days of paid sick leave, but the proposed deal landed on just one day. The White House and union leaders emphasized that the agreement wins concessions that removes penalties for missing time due to an illness or medical emergency.”  But in any case, there is no doubt that finally, after years of negotiations, workers’ concerns seem to have been heard. But will it be enough for ratification?

And what lessons have we learned so far from this affair?

There is no doubt that finally, after years of negotiations, workers’ concerns seem to have been heard. But will it be enough for ratification? 

Bad Reporting and Good Reporting

One good thing about the frenzy of anticipation over the last few days is that, in addition to news articles that focused only on the political and economic implications of a strike, a few writers (in addition to the Confined Space team) emerged that covered the actual issues that were important to rail workers, and even some interviews with workers themselves. But those articles were few and far between: the New York Times website yesterday led with a major, lengthy story about the looming strike without once mentioning why rail workers are so angry: the railroads’ scheduling and sick leave policies that punish workers for taking time off.

Writing for Slate, labor advocates Terri Gerstein and Jenny Hunter do a great job covering all of the major issues of concern to rail workers, as well as the reasons that the railroads persisted in taking us back to the good old robber baron days of yore.

Gerstein and Hunter describe “the inhumane attendance policies that currently mean railroad engineers and conductors are either working or “on call” 90 percent of the time” and how, according to the unions, these policies are  “these policies are destroying the lives of our members.”

Indeed, according to the authors:

It should not be controversial to say it, but: People should have sick leave so they do not have to come to work when they get sick. They should be able to take leave to attend doctors’ appointments or deal with family emergencies without risking their jobs. Workers should also have regular time off, not be on call almost every day of their lives. This strike or lockout was threatened because of the railroad companies’ refusal, right up until the last minute, to accept these basic human needs, and their willingness to bring an already weary country to the brink of yet another economic disaster, all in the name of ever more profits.

And not to forget, as Gerstein and Hunter point out, if we had a a national law guaranteeing sick leave as most advanced industrial companies have, the rail companies’ policy of punishing workers for taking time off for medical appointments would be clearly illegal.

If we had a a national law guaranteeing sick leave as most advanced industrial companies have, the rail companies’ policy of punishing workers for taking time off for medical appointments would be clearly illegal.

Now don’t get the idea that the the rail operators are sacrificing their workers just to be cruel. Not at all.

It’s for a good reason: higher profits.

Rail companies have been earning record profits — mainly by cutting their workforce to the bone. The problem is that when you cut your workforce to the absolute minimum, it leaves you no buffer when your selfish workers have the impertinence to think that they deserve an occasional day to go to the doctor, or, God forbid, attend their kids’ graduation or their mother’s funeral. The show must to on. The trains must move. The stakeholders must be satisfied.

But here is a price to be paid for treating your workers like machines instead of human beings.

Overworking people or making them work while sick is just plain dangerous. It’s not good for anybody if the engineers operating trains carrying explosive hazardous materials show up to work dragging their feet and seriously ill because they’ll be penalized or fired if they don’t.

Talking to Workers

As I mentioned above, while there were plenty of interviews with economists, corporate leaders and political prognosticators about the implications of a strike, you’d have to look long and hard for an interview with actual workers.  Happily, we still have a few labor reporters in the country (albeit most on the verge of starvation) who actually take the time and spend the shoe leather to interview rail workers.

There were plenty of interviews with economists, corporate leaders and political prognosticators about the implications of a strike, you’d have to look long and hard for an interview with actual workers.

One of those is Mike Elk, whose day job is writing Payday Report, but who also interviewed rail workers and their representatives in The American Prospect. For example, Hugh Sawyer:

It’s Hugh Sawyer’s 65th birthday, and he is pissed off. A 35-year veteran of Norfolk Southern, he had spent the day before working 12 hours, driving a train from Chattanooga to Atlanta. When Sawyer started his career in the mid-1980s, the average train trip between Chattanooga and Atlanta took five to six hours. Due to understaffing and negligence of rail infrastructure, today it often takes 12 hours to make the same journey.

When Sawyer got home around 7:30 Monday morning, he was able to sleep for only five hours. Now, he is spending his 65th birthday evening constantly refreshing his computer, to see if he is being called into work. It’s 8 p.m., and if Sawyer makes it to midnight without getting called in, he will get a day off.

“It’s just impossible to do anything, even on your birthday, when you have no idea when you are going to work,” Sawyer tells me.

And Michael Lindsey:

“The strike absolutely needs to happen,” says Lindsey. “This is not about money. This is about quality of life. This is about getting time off with your family.”

As the railroads have laid off more and more staff, they have forced workers like Lindsey to regularly work 80 to 90 hours a week, leading to an exodus of staff.

“In some ways, a strike has already been going on,” says Lindsey. “A lot of people that are calling it quits, just saying I can’t handle it anymore, not necessarily just because of the work schedule. But also because they realized that these are companies that really don’t care about you.”

Even the New York Times is finally getting on board. After I shamed them yesterday on Twitter, the Times partially redeemed itself this afternoon with an article by Noam Scheiber and Niraj Chokshi which discusses the issues and interviews real workers. (And yes, I’m taking full credit.)

“Every facet of your life is dictated by this job,” said Gabe Christenson, who until this year worked as a conductor for a large freight rail carrier. “There’s no way to get away from it.

When Mr. Christenson, the longtime conductor, who is also a co-chair of the industrywide group Railroad Workers United, began feeling run-down last year, he was reluctant to see a doctor. Under his company’s attendance policy, taking an unplanned day off could lead to disciplinary action, and “I worried about triggering an investigation,” he said.

So he waited until he could get an appointment on a scheduled day off a few months later, at which point he got bad news: He had an infection that might have been easily resolved with medication but now required surgery.

“They had to cut infected tissue out in my leg,” Mr. Christenson said.

Lessons

Ultimately, there are some lessons to be learned here.

First, none of the victories that rail workers have earned would have come without their unions. Individuals alone simply cannot make the kind of progress that groups of workers, formed into unions can accomplish. And unions are not just about more money. They are first and foremost about respect and forcing management to listen to their workers and treat them like human beings. This is an important lesson coming at a time of renewed support for organizing (and a growing number of strikes.)

None of the victories that rail workers have earned would have come without their unions. Individuals alone simply cannot make the kind of progress that groups of workers, formed into unions can accomplish. And unions are not just about more money. They are first and foremost about respect and forcing management to listen to their workers and treat them like human beings.

Second, it helps to have some leverage. Nothing sharpens the mind like a threat to cripple an already problematic economy just weeks before an national election. And it helps to have friends in the White House (and Department of Labor). According to the Washington Post, “Biden had grown animated in recent days about the lack of scheduling flexibility for workers, expressing a mixture of confusion and anger that management was refusing to budge on that point.”

Third, we need a national sick leave law in this country so that the clear lack of this obvious basic human need doesn’t threaten to bring down the entire U.S. economy. Sometimes it’s hard to remember, but this is 2022, not 1896, as much as the rail companies wish to turn the clock back.

Finally, the news media must do a better job of reporting on the issues that workers are threatening to strike over, and not just on the political and economic implications of a strike. Too many people still believe that unions and their members are just a bunch of greedheads who would happily sacrifice the American economy to put a few extra bucks in their pockets. Part of the problem is that few major newspapers employ full-time labor reporters any more. The “labor beat” is covered by the business reporter, and that generally doesn’t end well for workers who are trying to get their story out. Reporters could even take Mike Elk’s example and actually interview some workers, although that might take some actual work.

 

2 thoughts on “Lessons of the Averted Rail Strike”
  1. Thank you for the excellent commentary! As an occupational medicine physician, I have seen numerous RR workers stress by the continual uncertainty of waiting for the beeper to go off, never knowing when one will get called in. That means they were never off duty, at least mentally. You are right about the Union being the reason the workers make any gains, and we need to push for national measures such as sick time as well as guaranteed number of days off and adequate staffing to reduce work stress and improve safety. This is true for all workplaces.

  2. Great summation and helpful links to stories—thanks Jordan! When I worked with my co-workers to organize our fellow paramedics, EMTs and wheelchair van operators into SEIU Local 250, a basic problem people complained about was the absolute lack of control over their life: the random scheduling; on-call hours; sudden diversions to destinations hours away; siphoning off of 911 units for lucrative private transport runs that left the 911 system (and the public) short of ambulances and ground up the paramedic staff, so our response times increased and stress went through the roof. As you said, when a company treats works like expendable interchangeable commodities, everyone eventually suffers, including the public—if a train carrying millions of gallons of hazardous materials is being operated by an exhausted, frustrated engineer.

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