Railroad

Does this seem like a good way to attract loyal, dedicated, satisfied workers?

Come work for the railroad. It’s a great job, decent pay. Hours may be a bit long. You’ll spend weeks at a time away from home in cheap motels and miss important family events, kids sports games, birthdays, recitals and vacations, weddings and funerals. You can get called up at any time, so don’t even try to make plans. Stay healthy because you’ll be punished or even fired for an unexpected medical event. Also, great pension…if you live that long.

Aaron Hiles, a locomotive engineer, for BNSF didn’t live that long.

Aaron Hiles, a locomotive engineer, told his wife he “felt different,” though he couldn’t say exactly how. He made an appointment to see a doctor, his family said. But then his employer, BNSF, one of the largest freight rail carriers in the nation, unexpectedly called him into work.

Failing to show up would invite penalties under a new attendance system BNSF had adopted just a few months earlier, a policy that unions have decried as the strictest in the nation. So Hiles, 51, delayed his doctor’s visit, his family said, and went into work.

A few weeks later, on June 16, Hiles suffered a heart attack and died in an engine room on a BNSF freight train somewhere between Kansas City, Mo., and Fort Madison, Iowa — a tragedy that helped fuel a labor standoff that last week nearly shut down the U.S. economy.

It was the railroads’ cruel attendance policies that almost led to a nationwide rail strike last week before a last-minute tentative agreement was reached with President Biden’s intervention.

And as Hiles’s death showed, the policy isn’t just stressful, it can also be deadly.

“This policy is pretty cruel. Everybody is worried about points,” said Joel Dixon, a BNSF conductor and Hiles’s best friend of more than two decades. “It’s always a question whether Aaron would still be around if he made that doctor’s appointment. Him and I talked every day. We were brothers.”

 “It’s always a question whether Aaron would still be around if he made that doctor’s appointment. Him and I talked every day. We were brothers.”

The rail companies defend their policies arguing that they are “committed to working with employees when ‘extenuating circumstances’ arise but that the points-based policies are necessary to keep the trains running during a challenging worker crunch.

Points-based attendance policies date to 2020, when Union Pacific, one of the country’s largest carriers, rolled out new rules to help ensure staffing during the pandemic. Under these policies, employees are granted a certain number of points, which are deducted when they miss a request to come into work or call out of work unexpectedly. If their point totals fall too low, penalties can apply, up to and including termination.

BNSF adopted its own points-based attendance policy in February 2022. Unions called BNSF’s policy “the worst and most egregious attendance policy ever adopted by any rail carrier. BNSF said that the policy was implemented to “incentivize consistent and reliable attendance” amid increased demand for smooth-running services. Employees can gain points by agreeing to be on call for 14 days straight.
Just missing a phone call from BNSF to come into work results in a 15-point deduction, BNSF confirmed. Many conductors and engineers live in rural parts of the country with limited cell service. Once called, workers have 90 minutes to two hours to report to work, regardless of the time of day and how far they live from their station. Failing to show up for work on weekends, holidays and other “high impact” days, such as Super Bowl Sunday and Mother’s Day, result in the largest deductions.

Remember that these are the same companies who argue that the best way to ensure worker safety is to illegally punish them when they get injured on the job. In 2015, for example, OSHA fined Union Pacific Railroad $350,000 for disciplining a locomotive engineer for reporting workplace injury. Since 2001, the company had faced more than 200 whistleblower complaints nationwide.

These are the same companies who argue that the best way to ensure worker safety is to illegally punish them when they get injured on the job.

The railroads didn’t make any friends among workers by telling the Presidential Emergency Board that “The Carriers maintain that capital investment and risk are the reasons for their profits, not any contributions by labor.” and that there’s no reason that higher profits should not lead to higher worker compensation.

A reduction in labor costs and the draconian attendance policies are part an efficiency drive that began in the 1990’s.  Wall Street loved the new efficiency model known as precision scheduled railroading, cutting back on equipment and employees and running rigid, consistent schedules.

And it’s been working, if you’re just measuring by the profits of the rail companies:

At CSX, for example, the number of employees plunged by a third over the past decade. This helped expand the company’s profit margins, and its stock is up over 300 percent since the end of 2011, far exceeding gains in the wider stock market.

Last year, the seven major railways based in the United States and Canada — which include CSX — had combined net income of $27 billion, up from $15 billion a decade earlier. Over the past decade, the six of those seven railways that were publicly traded paid out $146 billion in stock buybacks and dividends, which is over $30 billion more cash than they invested in their businesses.
Rail workers, of course, are not so pleased and they’re voting with their feet. More than 700 BNSF employees have quit their jobs since the policy was rolled out in February,
The railroads didn’t make any friends among workers by telling the Presidential Emergency Board that “The Carriers maintain that capital investment and risk are the reasons for their profits, not any contributions by labor.”

The Threat of a Strike May Not Be Over

But the threat of a strike isn’t over. Union members still have to ratify the tentative agreement that their leadership reached with rail management and that may not be a slam dunk.

According to the Washington Post:

Reaction on social media has been outraged since union leaders walked away with a deal that guarantees rail workers only a single additional paid day off. Some workers said they weren’t sure how the negotiators arrived at these policies, in their tug-of-war of proposals in closed-door talks over some 20 hours at the Department of Labor offices. More specific contract language will be distributed to workers in the coming weeks and explained in educational sessions intended to persuade workers to ratify the agreements, union leaders say.

In These Times reports that

Without the precise contract language in front of them, railroad workers have many questions about the details of the tentative agreement, including how exactly assigned days off will work. Some have already suggested on social media that they will vote to reject the deal.

Ron Kaminkow [a Nevada-based engineer and member of the Teamsters-affiliated Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen (BLET)] said that he and his fellow workers are skeptical because they’ve ​been lied to so much by politicians, union leaders and other powers-that-be.”

The ratification vote will like not take place until October.

3 thoughts on “New Rail Deal May Still Be Doomed Over Scheduling Issues”
  1. This is a sad story about the death of a railroad engineer who died because of the greed of the managers and owners of the company. Their conduct is inexcusable. They should’ve let the man see his doctor.

  2. Why don’t they make employees live in company towns, have their kids attend company schools, and pay the employees in scrip…?

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