LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — More than 100 members of railroad unions rallied Sunday outside a BNSF Railway office in Lincoln, calling for better wages and working conditions to reflect inflation, sacrifices during the pandemic and stress caused by worker shortages.
Galen Owen, a representative of the track workers union, said railroad workers have been laboring without a contractor a raise for 2 1/2 years. Meanwhile, they worked through the pandemic and are now under additional stress due to furloughs and resignations prompted by worsening working conditions.
‘Now we’re expendable’
“Then we were essential. Now we’re expendable,” said Owen, a vice chairman with the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union.
One worker said there have been 1,700 terminations or resignations at BNSF Railway since the first of the year, including 67 out of Lincoln, forcing the remaining conductors and engineers to work even more hours.
Railroad workers at the nation’s seven major railroads have been working without a contract since 2019 and are currently voting to authorize a strike after talks with the companies broke down.
Such a strike — which could cripple an economy already struggling with supply chain delays — is not likely, since several hurdles must be crossed before a strike could occur.
Biden expected to act
It is expected that President Joe Biden, as early as July 18, will form a Presidential Emergency Board to hold hearings and recommend terms of a settlement. If that fails to find a resolution, Congress can intervene to solve the labor dispute.
Ben Wilemon, a spokesman for the BNSF, said the company has offered raises and retroactive raise, and has modified a much-criticized new attendance policy, Hi-Viz, that went into effect in February.
“BNSF remains committed and eager to work toward a swift and fair resolution to the collective bargaining process,” Wilemon said.
He added that the BNSF has more train crew employees now than a year ago and has hired 400 new train crew workers this year, half of whom have completed their training.
Railroad workers interviewed Sunday at the protest, however, said the railroad is seeking to increase worker contributions for health insurance and has reduced the amount of sick leave workers can take.
Owen said the offers by the BNSF “haven’t come close” to what workers need at a time when the company’s net profits are at $1 billion a quarter.
One major sticking point in the negotiations, and a long-running dispute between railroad unions and the companies, is over allowing one-man crews on some trains.
Currently, the union contract calls for two-man crews, which union members say is essential for safety on trains that can be nearly 3 miles long. A conductor, they maintain, is a crucial safety backup for the engineer, who drives the train.
The railroads contend that “redeploying” conductors to “ground-based” locations to run trains remotely will be just as safe and will allow for more predictable work schedules.
A new automatic braking system being installed in engines, to prevent collisions, the companies maintain, will allow the shift to one-man crews, though union officials say the system isn’t foolproof.
Conductors and engineers currently work on an “on-call” basis, seven days a week, which they said makes it difficult to have a normal family life.
U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., spoke earlier Sunday at the rally. He has supported legislation to maintain two-man crews.
Owen and others at Sunday’s rally said the BNSF and other railroads are sacrificing safety to increase profits.
“They want the least amount of workers to make the most money,” he said.
Wilemon, the BNSF spokesman, maintained there had been no change in how much time off employees receive.
More than 50% of train crew employees, Wilemon said, work fewer than 40 hours a week on average.
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