The Looming Rail Strike Was Years in the Making

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Workers are fed up with the cost-cutting and layoffs that have left them unable to care for themselves and their families.

Rail workers across the country may be on the verge of going on strike for the first time in three decades—a decision that would immediately cripple supply chains and cause billions in economic losses per day. Workers could walk off the job, or companies could lock them out, as soon as Friday if a deal isn’t reached. 

The dispute is not about pay, but the day-to-day indignities of working in the industry. Rail workers often don’t have weekends, get no sick days, and say that taking the time to care for themselves and their families can lead to being fired. As engineer Ross Grooters puts it, workers are “just fighting for the basic right to be able to be people outside of the railroad.”

The White House has been scrambling to try to avoid a strike that would upend the country’s economy in the lead-up to the midterm elections, and President Joe Biden has been in touch with unions and railroad companies, Politico reports. A shutdown could disrupt shipments of everything from coal and lumber to food and the chlorine used to treat wastewater. Amtrak trains that rely on freight carriers’ tracks are already being canceled.  

Failing to reach a deal by Friday does not guarantee a strike, since both sides could agree to extend negotiations. But administration officials are developing contingency plans to try to keep essential goods moving in the event of a shutdown, an outcome that White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has said is “not acceptable.”

Unionized workers and rail companies have been in contract negotiations for more than two years. In July, Biden established a Presidential Emergency Board tasked with providing recommendations on how to end the dispute. Last month, the board proposed pay increases of 24 percent over five years, additional bonuses, and one extra personal day a year. It also called for lifting a cap on workers’ health care premiums, and did not back workers’ calls for sick days and less-punitive attendance policies.

Warren Buffett’s BNSF, for example, has started using a convoluted system called “Hi-Viz” under which workers start with a point balance then lose points if they’re unavailable to work because they’re sick, have a family emergency, or other reasons. If their balance hits zero, they get a 10-day suspension, and a 20-day suspension if it happens again. Reaching zero for the third time in a two-year period means getting fired.

The rail industry quickly backed the emergency board’s recommendations, and most national railroad unions have now reached tentative deals with management. Two unions that represent about half the workforce—the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and the SMART Transportation Division—have not. 

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