Its Labor Day and the Railroaders are Restless

As Americans today conduct their annual celebration of working men and women there is restlessness in the railroad labor force.

Over the past several months railroaders have flooded the U.S. Surface Transportation Board with letters describing how difficult their jobs have become. They’ve taken to social media and given interviews to news media reporters to say how angry they are about what they describe as draconian attendance policies, having gone more than two years without an increase in wages, and increasingly harsh working conditions.

For a taste of how angry some railroaders are, read the open letter written by 17-year Union Pacific locomotive engineer Michael Paul Lindsey II that he addressed to the National Carriers Conference Committee, which negotiates on behalf of major railroads, and the Association of American Railroads, which represents the interests of U.S. Class 1 railroads.

It can be found at https://www.railwayage.com/freight/class-i/dear-national-carriers-conference-committee-and-aar/

Lindsey’s letter is a rant but also provides some insight into how some railroaders feel about their job and their employer.

A more measured analysis of how railroaders view their work was written by Trains magazine correspondent Bill Stephens and can be found at https://www.trains.com/trn/news-reviews/news-wire/railroads-ignore-train-crew-complaints-at-their-own-peril-analysis/

This is not to say that railroaders don’t have some legitimate grievances.

The discontent of railroaders is playing out as railroad management and labor unions struggle to agree on a new contract covering wages, benefits, and work rules.

As early as Sept. 16, railroad unions will be free under federal law to strike, and management will be free to lock out workers.

Although a strike or lockout seems unlikely to occur that soon, it still could occur sometime this fall.

Five railroad labor unions have reached a tentative contract agreement and the other seven unions will be in Washington on Wednesday for National Mediation Board supervised negotiations.

If there is a strike and/or lockout, many expect Congress to step in and impose a settlement because the economy could not bear to sustain the disruption of a railroad stoppage.

Congress “settled” strikes and lockouts in 1991 and 1992 but labor wasn’t happy with those outcomes.

Much of the back and forth over working conditions and a new contract is posturing, political theater and brinksmanship.

There are firebrands who want to strike, believing that doing so would bring the railroad industry to its knees.

Railroad labor union leaders and their members have complained bitterly about such things as railroad company profits, stock buybacks, executive compensation, and the precision scheduled railroading operating model.

But those are outside the scope of contract negotiations. A strike is not going to result in Class 1 railroad management dispensing with PSR or undoing the operational changes carriers have made in the past five years, including running fewer and longer trains.

When the current contract dispute is “resolved,” railroaders will see an increase in wages and, perhaps, some incremental improvement in working conditions.

But railroading will continue to be pretty much the same as it is now.

Railroading has always been and always will be a tough job. Freight and passengers move 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and on every day of the year.

There will always be railroaders working in the middle of the night, on weekends and on holidays, even those devoted to celebrating labor.

The railroading lifestyle can be hard on marriages, hard on family life, hard on social life, and hard on mental and physical health. That is not going to change.

The railroad can be a dangerous place to work, and every railroader knows that his or her next run could be their last through no fault of their own. That is not going to change, either.

Nor will railroad managers abandon the use of technology to closely monitor the behavior of their workers and to cut costs.

Railroad management is not going to back down on its desire to take most conductors out locomotive cabs and transform the job into a ground-based position responsible for multiple trains operating in a fixed geographic territory.

Labor accounts for 20 percent of railroad operating costs and management will always be seeking ways to trim that.

It is just a matter of time before management “wins” the crew size battle. Remember when trains used to have as many as five workers onboard? Those days are gone.

I am skeptical about some of the Sabre rattling going on about mass resignations if union workers don’t get a fantastic pay increase, additional paid days off, and more predictable and flexible work schedules.

It may have its downsides, but railroad work at the Class 1 level still pays better than many other jobs. Walking away from railroad work makes a good talking point and rallying cry but it remains to be seen just how many railroaders actually will do it if they don’t get the contract they desire.

In some places where railroaders are based there are few, if any, jobs offering comparable wages to railroad work. It might seem these days as though it’s a worker’s market, but all it would take to change that is an economic downturn in which jobs of any kind could be hard to come by.

Many of the issues surrounding railroad work that railroaders are grumbling about are not unique to the railroad industry. Every workplace has seen technology changes that have enabled managers to keep a closer eye on worker productivity.

It is common in virtually every industry for management to try to squeeze ever more productivity out of workers and to try to do more with less.

It may be, as Stephens wrote in Trains that railroad managers who ignore the discontent of their workers do so their own peril. It is equally true, though, that railroaders who underestimate the legal muscle and political power that railroad management can bring to bear in a labor dispute do so at their own peril, too.

Yes, railroad work can be tough, but so are many other jobs. That will never change, either. When it comes to setting the terms of the workplace, the advantage will almost always go to management and ownership.

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