Rail Strike Looms, Again

What would a rail work stoppage mean for the American economy?
A train carries coal near Ravenna, Kentucky (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn).

On September 15, the Biden administration helped broker a deal between freight-rail carriers and the twelve unions that represent American rail workers. Touted as averting a potentially catastrophic strike, the deal was tentative, pending a series of votes by union members. On October 10, the third largest union involved, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE), rejected the deal by a vote of fifty-six to forty-three. Without a new deal by November 19, workers could walk off the job, leading to widespread disruptions to commerce and travel and costing the American economy as much as $2 billion per day. 

The two sides are largely in agreement on pay. After three years without a raise, workers are set to earn a 24 percent increase over a five-year period under the tentative deal, terms consistent with those recommended by a Presidential Emergency Board in August. The major sticking points involve quality-of-life issues—including punitive attendance policies, understaffing, and safety—which the board left to negotiators to work out.

Under current attendance policies, workers are penalized for taking unscheduled time off due to illness or other emergencies. Union leaders initially asked for fifteen days of paid sick leave, but the tentative agreement provides just one. The deal also offers workers unpaid time off for three health-care visits, but only if scheduled thirty days in advance and on either a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. For many workers, who learned the details of the agreement well after President Biden announced it, these provisions are unacceptable. Jon Hauger, a conductor who works for BNSF, a railway owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the new leave policy is “a complete joke.” “You can’t plan out 30 days in advance,” he said. “It’s offensive.”

Forcing through a deal could require Democrats—still in control of both the House and the Senate until January—to abandon their averred support for unions at a moment when they can ill afford to lose more working-class voters.

Rigid attendance policies are the result of changes to the industry’s operational model that began in the 1990s. “Precision scheduled railroading,” as the new model is dubbed, calls for fixed schedules (trains used to be held until a certain capacity was reached) and reduced maintenance and equipment costs. Freight trains have become longer—sometimes up to three miles—and sit for shorter periods of time. Meanwhile, the number of workers has dropped: trains formerly staffed by up to seven workers are now regularly staffed by just two. An analysis from More Perfect Union found that from 2001 to 2021 Union Pacific was able to cut 18,000 employees while increasing revenue by 85 percent.

The burden of the new model falls on the workers who remain. They typically work twelve-hour shifts, sometimes go several weeks without a day off, and are required to be on-call for long stretches of time. They also spend many nights on the road, with meager travel allowances—another sticking point in negotiations. One BSNF conductor told VICE News, “We have so little time off now that we have to parent our children via FaceTime. In order to discipline my children or console them when they’re upset about something or why they never see me, I have to do it via FaceTime.”

BMWE’s vote against the deal came after four smaller unions had ratified it. Other rail unions will vote in the coming weeks. If just one union decides to go on strike, the rest will likely follow in solidarity. Under the Railway Labor Act, Congress does have the power to force a deal through over workers’ objections, but that would require Democrats—still in control of both the House and the Senate until January—to abandon their averred support for unions at a moment when they can ill afford to lose more working-class voters.

Published in the November 2022 issue: 

Alexander Stern is Commonweal’s features editor.

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