Despite Deal, Rail Workers Say Conditions Still Rough

Mike Moen | Public News Service
Union leaders representing the nation's railroad workers say it's nearly impossible for members to get time off, given the industry's staffing crunches. Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

The nation’s railroad workers say while they have a new contract, they’re still fighting for quality-of-life issues. That was demonstrated at informational gatherings held in Minnesota and other states this week.

The regional solidarity rallies in Minneapolis and Duluth surfaced after Congress approved a labor deal for the rail industry, averting a strike.

The agreement was criticized by workers for not including paid sick leave.

Nick Katich – the Minnesota legislative director for the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transit (SMART) Union, the largest freight railroad labor organization – said workers aren’t threatening to walk off the job right now.

But he said they want people to know that working conditions are draining morale.

“Our folks are just tired, they’re fatigued,” said Katich. “They can’t go on like this. We can’t recruit new employees.”

The union is calling on President Joe Biden to take executive action to address paid leave.

Beyond that, labor leaders say worker safety is another big concern, as rail companies opt for smaller crews to create efficiencies.

The Association of American Railroads says it hopes to address these concerns, but adds the new deal should help with scheduling issues and deliver pay raises.

On the safety issue, Katich said trains are operating with more cars – making them more susceptible to mechanical failure. He said that creates hazards when some trains operate with just one crew member.

“There’s kind of a task of overload,” said Katich, “as crew size has been reduced and more technologies have been added.”

To enhance safety, the Federal Railroad Administration has proposed a rule to require a minimum of two train crewmembers for over-the-road rail operations, with some exceptions.

That process is now in the public comment phase.

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