Tens of thousands of U.S. railroad workers could be on strike this Friday;

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A “cooling off” period expires Friday, at which time workers can strike, but railroad representatives stress the negotiations are ongoing.

Two of the largest railroad unions in negotiations with railroad carriers have drawn a line in the sand: They are demanding more quality-of-life provisions be put into the contract, covering attendance policies, vacation and sick days, or they will strike.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the SMART Transportation Division represent half of railroad union workers.

Eight out of the 12 unions have reached tentative agreements with the railroad carriers, according to the National Carriers’ Conference Committee.

They did not negotiate the quality-of-life provisions, sources familiar with the negotiations. The unions have what are called “Me Too” agreements, which means whatever benefits the BLET and the SMART unions agree to in their contracts with the carriers, other unions’ members receive.

“For years, they cut and cut and cut. It didn’t matter which department or terminal, it was indiscriminate,” said Michael Paul Lindsey, an Idaho-based locomotive engineer with Union Pacific.

Over the past six years, the major Class I railroads like BNSF, Union Pacific, CSX and Norfolk Southern have slashed their collective workforce by 29 percent (around 45,000 workers), leaving the industry woefully understaffed and putting extra strain on workers already accustomed to long, irregular hours. 

Lindsey said the severe staffing shortages have resulted in ​“constant chaos and crisis,” with workers being called at all hours, day and night, expected to take on assignments they were not initially scheduled for. 

Cost-cutting has also meant freight trains are running with more cars and more cargo than existing infrastructure is equipped to handle, or else misrouting rail cars just to get them moving. This cost-cutting, along with a labor shortage, have been major contributors to the supply-chain crisis. 

Meanwhile, the railroad companies remain highly profitable, with owners raking in $183 billion in stock buybacks and dividends since 2010.

Since January 2020, two coalitions of 12 rail unions dubbed the ​“United Rail Unions”  have been in negotiations with the major railroad companies, represented by the National Carriers’ Conference Committee. The unions include the Teamsters-affiliated Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers-Transportation Division (SMART-TD).

With bargaining kept behind closed doors, few specifics of the negotiations have been made public until recently. But in addition to raises and healthcare, workers say one of the major points of contention is staffing. While publicly acknowledging that the labor shortage constitutes a crisis and promising to hire and retain more employees, the railroads have demanded that freight train crews be reduced from two workers to only one.


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