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Working In These Times

Friday, May 14, 2010, 7:51 am

Rail Crew Drivers: Working Sick and Sick of Waiting

BY Kari Lydersen

Roland Bibb, Cindy Fox and other Renzenberger drivers protested Thursday May 13 in Chicago to demand paid sick days and adequate rest.   (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

Recently unionized drivers push for enforcement of mandated rest periods, and pay for on-call time



CHICAGO—At 59 years old, Roland Bibb never thought he would spend his days waiting by the phone. But that is a big part of life for Bibb and his co-workers at Renzenberger, a company that provides drivers to shuttle railroad crews between trains, hotels and homes.

The Renzenberger drivers are on call 24 hours a day, and must stay close enough to their company vans to be able to pick up a crew at a moment’s notice. That means sitting at home, mowing the lawn or watching TV rather than taking his wife out to dinner or visiting family as he’d like to spend his “free” time.

The drivers are not paid for on-call time. And their actual work day driving crews hundreds of miles could start after nine hours on-call, meaning de facto work days that can stretch to 18 hours and mean drivers are taking to the roads bleary-eyed and exhausted. If drivers say they are too tired for a trip, they will likely be written up and might be fired.

For this they earn wages that come out to barely over minimum wage – 19 cents a mile for long-distance drivers – far below industry trucking standards, or $8 to $9 an hour for time waiting in their vehicle. Yard drivers who work eight-hour shifts and move crews between waiting trains are also paid on average less than $9 an hour.

In ongoing contract negotiations, the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) are demanding pay for on-call time and the enforcement of legally mandated rest periods, among other things.

On Thursday, May 13, drivers picketed outside BNSF’s Corwith rail yard on Chicago’s southwest side in a cold rain, eliciting a constant blare of horns from truck drivers pulling into the facility.

So far Renzenberger has resisted the workers' demands along with the union’s demand for pay increases and paid sick days and holidays. Negotiations with the Kansas-based company resume in late May.

Renzenberger is one of four major companies nationally that drive railroad crews between trains, hotels and homes. It is a little-known but huge industry essential to keeping freight and passenger rail systems going. In years past, people like Bibb were employees of the railroad companies, typically unionized and earning about three times more. As is the overwhelming trend in the whole logistics industry, the jobs were subcontracted out, meaning subcontractors aggressively try to outbid each other. Companies called PTI, Coach America and RailCrew Xpress are Renzenberger’s main competition.

Josie Ramos, a driver for PTI, says she and her co-workers have it even worse. A decade ago PTI (Professional Transportation Inc.) signed a contract with a Brooklyn-based independent union, without the workers support, a typical move by companies seeking to avoid organizing by a pro-active union. Ramos said workers hope to eventually decertify that union and organize with the UE or another local, pro-worker union.

“I can’t even reach (the union), I have to call New York and then I get into a voicemail system,” she said. Ramos, 70, enjoyed good pay and benefits working for Ryerson steel until her second knee operation in 1988 forced her to quit. Now she earns barely more than minimum wage. “We don’t want yachts and Hawaiian vacations, we just want a living wage,” she said.

Both Renzenberger and PTI tout their commitment to safety. Renzenberger’s telephone greeting says: “Thanks for calling Renzenberger, where safety is first.” PTI’s website says:

PTI has set the industry standard for safety with our world-class safety program.  The primary objective of the safety program is to insure that our drivers are the safest and most well-trained drivers on the road in order to eliminate collisions and prevent injuries.

Workers scoff at such statements.

“Renzenberger says they are all about safety. But when they come to the bargaining table, Renzenberger is all about Renzenberger,” said Cindy Fox, a member of the negotiating team.

The pay is so little that many Renzenberger yard drivers work second jobs. They know they could be fired for refusing overtime, so they might end up losing their second job in order to please their Renzenberger bosses.

Bibb ran his own trucking business until tight economic times forced him to give it up. He says he drove a double trailer for 33 years without a single accident or ticket. Nevertheless, experienced drivers like him are treated “like children,” in Ramos’s words, monitored by cameras in the vans that are activated by every bump, pot hole or sudden stop. The drivers are frequently disciplined based on the camera footage, they say, even though it catches situations out of context. For example, they are supposed to stay four seconds behind the car in front of them.

“But in Chicago if you leave any space someone will pull in front of you, and then they blame you,” said Bibb. “If you never drove a double trailer down an icy mountain, don’t sit in Kansas and tell me how to drive a van. I’m the kind of driver they should want. But I could lose my job any day because of a pothole.”

Bibb noted that one fairly typical winter day involved waiting nine hours for a phone call, then driving 10 hours through a snowstorm to La Crosse, Wisc. “How would you like to pass me on the road in the middle of the night?” he asked.

Two days before the picket, he had gotten a phone call at 12:25 am, picked up a crew at 12:45 am, and finished his shift at 3:30 p.m.

UE International representative Mark Meinster noted that until the drivers unionized this winter, they weren’t even getting legally mandated breaks. Along with other contract demands the union is pushing the company to respect mandatory eight-hour rest periods and to pay workers for time spent servicing and washing their vans and swapping vans with driving partners. The union says the fact they are not currently paid for this time constitutes wage theft.

“These are hours people are working and not getting paid for,” said Meinster. He noted they have made “some progress” on workplace policies and other issues in negotiations, but that is all tentative until the company meets their economic demands including paid sick days and rest time.

"It's a matter of safety, they're having to go to work sick," said Meinster.

The workers say they do their best despite the low pay and disrespect from management. “Even though we’re not being paid anything, we go out of our way for the crews because we know them and we care about them,” Ramos said. 

The Renzenberger workers say they appreciate the enthusiastic support they’ve gotten from many railroad employees, though they can’t help but notice the crews they chauffeur make $40,000 to $60,000 or more per year, while they typically earn less than half that. Not to mention the railroad companies themselves are poised for massive expansion and new investment.

“There’s only one way for this to end,” said Tim Fox, 42. “With them giving us not what we want, but what we need.”

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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