Rail workers rally, call for Biden to act on sick leave, crew sizes

Rail workers and supporters rally at BNSF’s Northtown Yard in Fridley.

Federal lawmakers may have blocked them from going on strike, but freight rail workers aren’t giving up the fight for paid sick leave, safe crew sizes and respect for their essential work.

U.S. rail unions staged rallies yesterday in the Twin Cities, Duluth and elsewhere, looking to keep the spotlight on issues that, workers say, plague their industry.

Gathered near BNSF Railway’s Northtown Yard in Fridley, union members called out freight lines for putting greed before the health and safety, and they recounted grim experiences with rail bosses’ new business model, so-called “Precision Scheduled Railroading” (PSR).

Implemented by most carriers over the past decade, PSR is a ruthless template for squeezing more profits out of rail operations and workers, locomotive engineer Joel Mueller said.

“Railroad workers are at a breaking point,” he told more than 50 supporters who joined the midday rally. “We work 12-hour days, and we are on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”

Robert Dickerson, a member of Waseca-based SMART-TD Local 64, brought his sons Alexander (L) and William to the rally. “I’ve worked this job the whole time they’ve been alive,” he said, “but I do not encourage them to work for the railroad, sad to say.”

Mueller, who serves as statewide chair of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), said most railroad workers can’t take a day off without scheduling it weeks in advance. “We go to work sick because a lot of times the alternative could be dismissal or discipline from the railroads,” he said.

Twelve unions representing over 115,000 rail workers had hoped to gain paid sick leave in joint contract negotiations with the carriers this year. Ultimately, the benefit was left out of a tentative master agreement that the Biden administration helped mediate.

When members of four unions voted to reject the contract and authorize a strike in November, the eight other unions pledged not to cross their picket lines. That prompted President Biden to seek congressional support for imposing the contract’s terms and undercutting workers’ right to strike legally.

Congress granted the request. A companion bill adding seven paid sick days into the master agreement passed in the House but fell eight votes short of passing the Senate.

Now, rail unions and some lawmakers are urging Biden to use his executive powers to force railroads, as federal contractors, into offering workers paid sick time. Former President Barack Obama issued a similar executive order on Labor Day 2015, but it left out contractors covered by the Railway Labor Act.

“We need an executive order from the Biden administration to protect our members,” Mueller said. “That means sick days.”

Rail workers also are holding out hope for federal action to address another of their top demands: keeping two crew members aboard trains. Railroads are looking to technology to cut their labor costs, but that comes at a risk, Mueller said, noting some trains now stretch up to three miles long.

“It’s important that we have another set of eyes and ears in the cabin of the locomotive,” he said.

The Federal Railroad Administration is holding public hearings this week on newly proposed rules establishing minimum crew sizes for trains, and rail unions are monitoring the process closely.

Pat Dwyer, a member of SMART-TD Local 1000, recalled once having a severe allergic reaction to food while operating a freight train. The second crew member not only averted disaster, Dwyer said, but potentially saved his life.

“Two people on a train is deathly important, and people don’t understand that,” Dwyer said. “Sometimes you need another guy on the train – even if you don’t like him – to keep you awake, to keep you focused.”


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