train on railroad in countryside
Photo by Brett Sayles on

A nationwide railroad worker strike was averted last week when the Biden White House brokered a last-minute agreement.

But the all-night bargaining session in Washington, D.C. with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh which led to that agreement remains tentative as railroad workers have already been heard grumbling about what they are reading in the new contracts and threatening they might still strike just before the midterm elections.

If any of the 12 rail unions that represent rail workers fail to ratify a new contract, the strike could still take place. Railroad workers have been negotiating with rail owners for years now with demands for higher pay and better working conditions. One key sticking point was that workers wanted railroad owners to grant them the ability to take days off for medical care without being subject to discipline.

The AFL-CIO, one of the unions representing rail workers, has been publishing what it calls  “Freight Railroad Worker Stories” on its blog site. The blog about Willette Thomas of TCU/IAM explains that “Since 2015, seven major railroad companies made $146 billion in net profits off the backs [of …] workers. That’s the most money they’ve ever made in the history of railroading—even more than the Gilded Era railroad robber barons. During this same time period, the companies eliminated 45,000 jobs from the industry. Instead of recognizing the value of these workers, the companies have enacted massive job cuts and offered the remaining workers a net pay cut and worse health care benefits than they have now. This is unacceptable.”

Willette Thomas, a Jacksonville, Florida-based crew dispatcher who works for the rail-based freight transportation company CSX Corporation explained that, at the height of the pandemic, she and her colleagues were implored to continue working. They were told they were essential workers but were not treated as such: “We showed up, we worked with no contract, no raise, and never an offer for hazard pay of any kind,” Thomas said.

“I never felt like an essential worker. I was never recognized as an essential worker. I get it. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a nurse. But when the railroad said that I had to come to work every day because I am an essential worker but I never received any essential worker benefits from it, that was disheartening. There was no COVID pay when we were out sick. We had to use our own entitlements to maintain financial stability—if you had entitlements. I had my daughter and a newborn grandson at home. There was always the scare of coming home and giving my family COVID, which I did. My daughter got it. Thank God, the baby was fine, but there was always that fear.”

Union members are still looking over the negotiated contracts. When the agreement was initially announced the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and SMART Transportation Division, who represent 125,000 active and retired rail employees, issued a joint statement declaring, “We listened when our members told us that a final agreement would require improvements to their quality of life as well as economic gains. As a result, this agreement includes agreement provisions that will create voluntary assigned days off for members working in thru freight service, and all members will receive one additional paid day off. Most importantly, for the first time ever, the agreement provides our members with the ability to take time away from work to attend to routine and preventive medical care, as well as exemptions from attendance policies for hospitalizations and surgical procedures.”

Both unions stated, “This contract will not become final until our members have an opportunity to review its terms and approve it through a ratification vote.”

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