Why Railroad Workers Like Me Are Planning to Strike This Friday | Opinion

The supply chain crisis is about to get a lot worse. I and 115,000 of my fellow railroad workers are planning to go on strike on Friday if we can't reach an agreement with the railroad companies on safety, paid time off, and staffing issues. It would be the first national railroad strike in 30 years.

It's going to be a big deal for the American consumer if we go on strike; estimates have put the cost at $2 billion per day. But we've reached the end of our rope. In the last few years, the railroad companies have mounted an assault on labor, costing livelihoods and sacrificing worker safety to a point where we just can't go on.

For starters, railroad companies have adopted something called "positive train control" or PTC for short. PTC is basically autopilot for trains. It's a great piece of technology, but since adopting it, companies have decided that the conductor role is obsolete, and you just need an engineer to take care of the train. In an effort to save money, the railroads have been pushing for a single-man crew the last few years, with the biggest freight railroads reducing staff by 29 percent.

I'm all for better technology. But it has to be safe. And there's a big problem with eliminating the role of the conductor. One of the major things the conductor does is if there is an issue with the train, some sort of defect with a railcar, say, the conductor goes out and checks what the issue is while the engineer stays in the cab to control the train.

You can see how critical it is to the safety of the workers and the train that there be two workers present for this: one taking care of the train, and one investigating the problem. The conductor also ensures that the engineer is complying with safety issues that might arise when it comes to track conditions. The engineer knows the inside of the train, but the conductor is the expert on everything else.

Eliminate the conductor's role and any problem the engineer faces, he faces alone, while still being in charge of controlling the train. If there is a cyber-attack, the engineer is alone controlling the train with no conductor as backup.

Somehow, when it comes to flying planes, it's clear to corporations why this isn't ok. Planes pretty much fly themselves on autopilot after takeoff until about 500 feet from landing. Yet no one is suggesting that a pilot fly alone. The pilot and the copilot are there to supervise together and intervene if something goes wrong, and it's clear you need two of them.

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The Houston, Texas, skyline is seen from a railroad yard on March 6, 2019. LOREN ELLIOTT/AFP via Getty Images

Why are the railroads any different? Why is ok to have just one overworked person in the locomotive?

Railroad companies might say that the reason planes are different is that people cargo is very, very precious. They're right. But on the railroads, we carry very dangerous chemicals, things like chlorine cars that, if damaged, can liquify your lungs with the escaping gas.

It's all well and good to try to save money with better tech, but not at the expense of worker safety.

And it's not just eliminating conductors. In another effort to save on labor, the railroads have been running trains that are over a mile long. The companies combine two trains into one to save on a second crew, meaning we regularly get on trains that are over 10,000 feet long.

This isn't just dangerous for us. When this happens and we head through cities and towns, we regularly block railroad crossings that people use to get to work, or even to get rescued if they need emergency services. Many will say there are alternate routes around a blocked crossing, but let's be real: A couple of extra minutes can be the difference between life and death. It can save your life, or your house, if there is an emergency. And in many small towns, there just isn't another route.

I originally started in track maintenance, swinging maul hammers for a living—a great alternative to CrossFit. Back then, a few decades ago, there were plenty of employees to help with the large amount of work that needed to be done. Now, the railroads have scaled that department back as well, and many have railroad contractors doing maintenance work, which undercuts union workers' wages. Many are also hiring illegal workers.

Union railroad workers used to do all the railroad-related projects, such as laying new track and converting wood bridges to cement and metal bridges. Now, much of it is being done by lower paid contractors. The mechanical department has mostly been laid off, and in the yard, the conductor role has had mechanical responsibilities added to it.

We're all overworked. On issue after issue, safety has become secondary, but the trains still need to be moved.

There's also the issue of paid time off, which is punishingly limited. The standard for freight railroads is one year of service gets you one week of PTO, a second year gets you two weeks, you get a third week after eight years of service, and finally four weeks after 17 years of service.

To understand why this isn't nearly enough, you have to understand the hours: I'm often on the railroad for 13, 14 hours straight, often through the night. I'm on call 24/7, often with two hours to get to work once called. If I need a day off to go to a doctor's appointment or kid's game, I have to use PTO, but it can be denied if they really need me that day. And they have instituted a point system to discourage taking unpaid days when you run out of PTO days, which of course we all end up having to do, what with working so many hours. Too many points off and you get disciplined, and finally terminated.

What this means is that we often have to make impossible choices, between parenting our kids and hoarding those PTOs for emergencies. It all results in many problems at home and it's a huge hit to our mental health. The companies have made any kind of work/life balance impossible.

Look, I understand that there are ups and downs in business. But for years, the railroads have laid off workers with reckless abandon. It's not sustainable.

Back in July, President Biden averted a strike by instituting a cooling off period and establishing a Presidential Emergency Board to find a solution satisfactory to us workers and to the major freight companies. But that ends Friday, and absent an agreement, we will be going on strike.

States could easily pass laws barring single person crews and limiting the length of trains, but perhaps unsurprisingly, neither political party has stepped up to help the 115,000 railroad workers and our families.

While Senator Bernie Sanders found time to fly to the UK to join Britain's striking railroad workers, we haven't felt anything commensurate here in his own backyard. Meanwhile, the Republican Party that loves to brand itself as the new party of the blue-collar working class also been quiet on this issue.

They all ignore the safety hazard as jobs are cut and more responsibilities are added to each role, while railroad CEOs rake in tens of millions of dollars in bonuses. To add insult to injury, the rail carriers' stated position is that "capital investment and risk are the reasons for their profits, not any contributions by labor."

You can see why we're ready to strike. And if we can't reach an agreement that protects our jobs, our dignity, and our lives, many people are going to start to feel it come Friday.

Charles Stallworth is a union railroad worker.

The views in this article are the writer's own.