Workers on freight trains are fed up.
Because he couldn’t get time off, one conductor almost missed his wife’s funeral. After having to stay at home to repair a broken water heater, an engineer said he was put on disciplinary leave. Other freight train workers blamed the industry’s on-call, 24/7 scheduling requirements for health issues and divorces, claiming that the lifestyle had turned one of the country’s best-paying blue-collar jobs into one marred by misery and neglect.
After years of service disruptions and cutbacks, the country’s freight rail workers are calling for a strike, which could further clog supply chain networks and increase political pressure on a White House already under fire for economic woes. The Biden administration announced Friday that it will appoint a three-person commission to prevent the first freight rail strike in 30 years. Rail companies say they are raising wages to keep their employees among the highest paid in the industry and are working to make their systems more consistent.
The presidential commission will formally halt the contentious negotiations between workers, unions, and companies, and will prohibit workers from striking until September. The White House was forced to act after the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union, which is leading a coalition of ten rail unions in negotiations, voted by more than 99 percent, or approximately 11,000 votes, to authorize a strike last Tuesday.
The movement brings to an end years of freight rail tensions that peaked during the pandemic. Workers who support a system that moves approximately 20 billion tons of goods per year, accounting for roughly 40% of long-distance goods transported in the United States, complain that rail companies are increasing profits by cutting labor costs to the bone and raising prices, even as service has suffered.
Railroads have been able to run longer trains with fewer workers thanks to the years-long implementation of a technological system known as “precision scheduled railroading,” which has helped drive handsome profits in recent years.
According to government data, railroads are under increased strain. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, fatalities per 100,000 miles increased by 60% from 2017 to 2021, though industry experts caution that those figures reflect more about the public — people who ignore or miss signs to avoid crossing trains — than the rails.
According to the Association of American Railroads, the industry group that represents the companies, railroad safety has been improving for years, with the employee injury rate dropping 48 percent since 2000.
Current and former freight rail workers, including conductors, engineers, yardmasters, and dispatchers, said in interviews that difficult working conditions worsened during the pandemic.
They claimed this was due to companies such as BNSF, one of the nation’s largest rail companies, instituting rigid scheduling requirements that require workers to be on-call nearly 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, as labor shortages have challenged the industry. Workers and union officials say their wages haven’t risen in three years, despite rising inflation.
According to a BNSF spokesman, the scheduling policy, dubbed “Hi-Viz” internally, was developed to improve consistency, service, and reliability for its crews and customers. It stated that the company has been making changes to the system in order to improve it, and that attendance-related discipline has decreased.
However, several workers interviewed say the working conditions are affecting their health. A locomotive engineer at BNSF in Nebraska said his doctor recently warned him that his health problems from working a 24-hour shift were worsening. He advised the engineer to seek medical attention, find a new job, or expect his drinking, weight gain, and sleeplessness to worsen.
Four workers reported discussing similar issues with their doctors. One employee claimed that the stress of the industry’s scheduling contributed to his divorce.
In a statement, BNSF said it couldn’t comment on individual employees’ cases but was “committed to working with employees in cases of extenuating circumstances.”
Freight rail jobs are a vestige of the unionized middle class and historically have been one of the top industries by pay for workers without a college degree. A high percentage of the workforce is male, and it also draws heavily from former members of the military.