Happening Now

Like Passengers, Rail Labor Has Had Enough

July 15, 2022

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

This afternoon President Biden temporarily stopped the clock on a looming rail labor strike that could further snarl a national rail network that’s been slowing to a crawl for months, frustrating not only ever-more-delayed Amtrak passengers but angry grain and consumer goods shippers as well.

Biden signed an executive order creating a Presidential Emergency Board, or PEB, effective at 12:01 am on Monday, forcing a 60-day pause to permit a “neutral” panel of three to spend 30 days coming up with a potential solution to the impasse between labor and the railroads. After the PEB makes its recommendations, all sides have another 30 days to work out a deal or accept the PEB’s solutions.

If the White House had failed to act, labor would have been legally free to go on strike – and management would have been able to stage lockouts – by Monday. This week, both the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET, a unit of the Teamsters) and the SMART-Transportation Division overwhelmingly approved a strike vote. Now, that doesn’t mean a strike was guaranteed to happen on Monday, but it does mean that the memberships of the unions have signaled their backing for a walkout. Appointing a PEB stops that process, at least temporarily.

These storm clouds have been building for a long time, as we’ve shared with you in previous editions of the Hotline. Engineers have gone for years without a wage increase, and now inflation is eating up whatever they have left. But even more than pay, engineers are pushing back against poor working conditions. Just as we’ve seen in other areas of business, ordinary workers – whether they’re Starbucks baristas or McDonald’s “crew” members or railroading professionals – want better work-life balance. Oddly, railroads struggling to hire enough crews to keep trains on the road have doubled-down on irritations like short-turns on shifts and attendance policies that force employees to choose between medical care or family emergencies and work.

BLET National President Dennis Pierce describes the Class I railroads’ current operating philosophy as “employees and shippers be damned,” specifically calling out the disastrous precision-scheduled railroading (PSR) model for what it really is: a way of operating the cheapest possible railroad in which customers must adapt to the needs of the railroad. In this, Amtrak passengers are more alike to the corn and wheat shippers who have been bludgeoned by the PSR model’s terrible service than they might have first understood.

“To accomplish their goals, they furloughed or fired a third of their nationwide workforce, forcing the remaining employees to work more,” Pierce said this week when he announced that 95% of his voting members approved a strike. “They began running longer and longer trains, without regard for safety concerns, that continue to all but shut down the rail networks due to an infrastructure never designed to run these longer and heavier trains. As the post pandemic economy started to ramp up, they refused to adequately staff their operations, continually blaming their remaining employees for rail carrier actions that negatively impacted their shippers. Draconian attendance policies were implemented, forcing engineers and conductors to work day in and day out with no scheduled time off or be fired. These ridiculous policies forced thousands of employees out of the industry, either by resignation or termination, further compounding an already understaffed operation. And if anyone is close to being abused as much as the employees by this business model, it’s the shippers, or as they should be called, the rail industries’ customers.”

The always-sharp Frank Wilner at Railway Age suggests, however, that labor didn’t give the National Mediation Board enough of an opportunity to broker some kind of compromise, noting that even though BLET sought NMB’s help in breaking the logjam, mediation had “barely” begun in mid-March “when the Pierce-led labor bargaining coalition demanded release from mediation in hopes of political advantage through third-party intervention.”

Nonetheless, Wilner correctly notes that Class I management’s hands are “far from clean.” And this looming dispute could put the folly of too-long freight trains and their resulting punitive work schedules front-and-center before a voting public which has up to now probably never given any of it a second thought. That the public will get to see this two months before they head to the voting booth in midterm elections has not gone unnoticed, either in the White House or in industry.

Late trains for everyone will mean even higher inflation as the raw materials for food and consumer goods get caught in the strike’s undertow. And of course, passengers already reeling from ugly delays on Amtrak routes around the country could see things getting much worse.

Now that we have a Presidential Emergency Board, let’s hope the next 60 days bring some sanity to the Class I operating models on which all of us – not just as rail passengers but as consumers and voters – depend.