Rail workers are blown to dust, says AFL-CIO chief
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Efforts by national freight rail carriers to increase efficiency are having the opposite effect, a union official said July 12.
Demoralized workers are leaving the industry, causing delays and damage to the national supply chain, said Greg Regan, chairman of the AFL-CIO’s transportation trades department.
Major rail carriers have cut about 45,000 positions over the past six years, according to an April 2022 report from the federal Surface Transportation Board.
However, the United States had 11.3 million job openings in May, with 4.3 million people leaving their jobs that month, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Regan said workers were “turned to dust”, having gone three years without a raise and being asked to work long hours to meet growing demand.
Railroad unions have pointed to a carrier industry practice called “precision programmed railroading.” Carriers say the practice gives their customers more reliable service, but workers counter that its main purpose is to reduce the size of the workforce.
Add to that an availability policy put in place by the Fort Worth-based BNSF in February, and railroad workers are leaving the industry in droves, Regan said.
“The railways are, of course, affected by many of the same recruitment challenges that impact other employers. However, the railways outperform the wider labor market in terms of recruitment and retention,” wrote Michael Maratto, spokesman for the National Railway Labor Conference, a trade group representing rail carriers in union negotiations, in an email to Star-Telegram.
He noted that railroad workers earn about $130,000 a year in wages and benefits and attributed the industry’s hiring woes to broader economic trends.
The average annual salary for a locomotive engineer was $72,940 in 2021, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. The figure does not take into account the remuneration of health care and pension benefits.
At an STB hearing in April, representatives of agriculture and energy companies complained that rail delays and limitations are hurting their businesses.
Shameek Konar, CEO of Pilot Flying J, said Union Pacific’s limits on his company’s shipments would reduce domestic diesel supply and raise prices at the pump.
Pilot Flying J accounts for 20% of U.S. diesel supply, and Union Pacific asked Pilot Flying J to cut shipments by 50% in April, Konar told the board.
In June, the Surface Transportation Board ordered railroads CSX, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific and BNSF to come up with a detailed plan to improve their performance. He cited “short-sighted labor management”.
Unions and rail carriers are deadlocked over a new employment contract after failing to reach an agreement before the National Mediation Council in June.
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The main sticking points are wages and benefits.
The carriers are offering a 16% wage increase over five to seven years and want workers to pay more for their health care benefits.
Regan said that amounts to a pay cut because inflation and extra health care payments will wipe out any benefits from the raise.
He pointed to carriers making record profits and said it was unconscionable to ask workers to pay more when companies are earning so much.
BNSF reported net income of $5.99 billion in 2021.
Several unions are considering calling a national strike to draw attention to poor wages and working conditions which they say are causing an exodus of workers from the industry.
Members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen voted 99.5% in favor of a strike on July 12, allowing their leaders to call a work stoppage when a “cooling off period imposed by the federal government expires on July 18.
President Joe Biden could prevent a strike by appointing a three-member Presidential Emergency Board to investigate and make recommendations on how best to resolve the dispute.
Regan said the board would serve as a neutral arbiter and could be helpful in moving the two sides forward in their stalemate.
He said workers want to get back to work and can help rail carriers build a more stable supply chain to help goods move more efficiently by rail.
“But the longer these workers remain without a pay rise and without a stable contract guaranteeing some economic security in the future, the worse the situation will only get,” he said.