Rail Jobs Don't Have to Be Deadly

Railroad corporations are packing schedules and loosening workplace safety standards. Workers are paying for it with their lives.

Maximillian Alvarez

A northbound freight train in Jeffersonville, Indiana, on Sept. 14, 2022. Luke Sharrett for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Read the full transcript below.

Last Wednesday, a fellow rail worker was gravely injured on the job and lost his life,” a Feb. 6 email from Railroad Workers United reads. Our brother Chris Wilson, who worked for Norfolk Southern, was critically injured in its Decatur rail yard Wednesday and died Thursday at Huntsville Hospital.” Another email from Feb. 9 reads, On January 15th, a fellow rail worker was killed on the job in Ohio.” Then, on Feb. 17, another email: On February 13th, a fellow rail worker was killed on the job in North Carolina. Brother Randall M. Howell, 41, of Allied Federation Lodge 563, died following a road crossing incident in Roanoke Rapids, N.C.” Why are railroad workers all over the country dying on the job? And what can be done to stop these needless deaths? We talk with four railroad workers and members of Railroad Workers United (RWU).

Panelists include: Nick Wurst, a freight conductor in Massachusetts, legislative rep for his union local, and currently serving on the RWU international steering committee; Matt Weaver, a member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division-International Brotherhood of Teamsters (BMWED-IBT) for nearly 30 years, legislative director for his union in Ohio, and a founding member of RWU; Mark Burrows, a retired locomotive engineer with 37 years in the industry, and the editor of The Highball,” RWU’s quarterly newsletter: and Ross Grooters, RWU co-chair, member of Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, also serving on the BLET-IBT Iowa state legislative board, with over 20 years in the industry.

Transcript

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Mark Burrows: My name is Mark Burrows. I’m a retired locomotive engineer. I had 37 years in the industry. My last 25 was with the Canadian Pacific, now the Canadian Pacific Kansas City Southern. Before I retired, I had been a delegate to the last United Transportation convention in 2011 and the inaugural smart transportation convention in 2014, as a delegate from my local 1433 in the Chicago area. I’ve been a longtime member of Railroad Workers United, and am currently the editor of The HighBall, which is our quarterly newsletter.

Nick Wurst: So my name is Nick Wurst. I’m a freight conductor in Massachusetts. I’m a member of SMART Transportation Division. I serve as the legislative rep for my local and then as a member of RWU I also serve on the international steering committee.

Matt Weaver: Hello everyone, my name is Matt Weaver. I am a nearly 30 year member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees of the Teamsters. I am the legislative director for all of our members in the state of Ohio. I’m a proud RWU founding member, and am always looking for rail labor solidarity. Thank you for having me, Max.

Ross Grooters: My name is Ross Grooters. I’m a Railroad Workers United co-chair and a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. We’re part of the Teamsters rail conference. I serve on the Iowa State Legislative board for that organization. I have 20-plus years in the industry.

Maximillian Alvarez: Alright. Welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times Magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor and made possible by the support of listeners, like you. Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network. So if you’re hungry for more worker and labor focused shows like ours, then you gotta follow the link in the show notes, and go check out the other great shows in our network. And of course, please support the work that we are doing here at Working People because we can’t keep going without you. You can share our episodes with your co-workers, you can leave us positive reviews of the show on Spotify and Apple podcasts, and you can become a paid monthly subscriber on Patreon for just five bucks a month. If you subscribe for 10 bucks a month, you will also get a print subscription to the amazing In These Times Magazine mailed to your mailbox every month. You just gotta head on over to patre​on​.com/​w​o​r​k​i​n​g​p​eople, that’s p​-​a​-​t​-​a​-​r​-​e​-​o​-​n​.com/​w​o​r​k​i​n​g​p​eople. Hit the subscribe button and you will immediately unlock all the awesome bonus episodes that we publish every month and all the bonus content that we published over the past six seasons of the show. 

Maximilian Alvarez: My name is Maximilian Alvarez, and we’ve got another great episode for y’all. Today we are diving right back into the topic of workers and working conditions on the railroads. And as you guys heard at the top, we’ve got an amazing panel of folks. Some are familiar to our podcast, if you’ve watched our stuff at The Real News Network. But all incredible people, all doing incredible work over there at Railroad Workers United, a solidarity organization that brings together railroad workers from different unions from all sides of the industry. And they bring community members, people who maybe don’t work on the rails, but who have a vested interest in a better railroad system. So things like East Palestine and Ohio don’t happen, you know, but RWU is out there doing incredible work. And if you guys don’t already, then I highly recommend that you follow Railroad Workers United on all your social media, and you should sign up for their email newsletter, which is where I go to keep my ear to the rail as the great Ron Kaminkow would say. And that’s where I stay up to date on everything that’s happening on the railroads from the workers perspective, not just the CEOs, or the shareholders.

That’s where I started to notice something really grim piling up in my inbox this month. I kept seeing emails from Railroad Workers United with the same subject lines stating: rail fatality alerts.” On February 6 of this month I got an email that started, Dear fellow railroad workers, last Wednesday, a fellow rail worker was gravely injured on the job and lost his life. Our brother Chris Wilson, who worked for Norfolk Southern, was critically injured in its Decatur rail yard Wednesday and died Thursday at Huntsville hospital according to the NTSB and Morgan County Coroner, Jeffrey Chung.”

On February 9, I got another email that read Dear fellow railroad workers, on January 15, a fellow rail worker was killed on the job in Ohio. A National Transportation Safety Board report released February 7 stated On January 15, 2024, about 5:30am, an Ohio Central Railroad signal maintainer was found deceased by the crew of Wheeling and Lake Erie freight train 21815 on the main track of the Columbus and Ohio River Railroad, east of the new Rumley Road highway railroad gate crossing.”

On February 17, I got another email that began, Dear fellow railroad workers, on February 13, a fellow rail worker was killed on the job in North Carolina. Brother Randall M Howell, 41, of allied Federation lodge 563 died following a road crossing incident in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Brother Howell was a foreman on the T six system production gang, when he was struck by the ballast regulator”.

“I can't speculate on what happened. I have a feeling they'll blame the dead guy.”

So why does this keep happening? Why are railroad workers across the country dying on the job? This is really serious. We need to talk about this. And the fact that you don’t hear about this unless you subscribe to Railroad Workers United newsletters is pretty infuriating, in my opinion, as someone who’s in the media. So we wanted to do our part to bring together this incredible panel of folks and talk about this seriously. And I want to start there, guys first, again, thank you so much for coming on the show. I know with your existing schedules just getting us all available at the same time was a feat in and of itself. But also because we’re talking about really important stuff here. And I really, really am excited to get to of break all this down with you guys and let folks know why this keeps happening, what dangers workers on the rails like yourself face every day, and what we can do to help and actually stop these needless worker deaths that are happening to our brothers and sisters on the railroad.

So I want to go around the table and ask if we could start with those three stories that I mentioned in the introduction. I know there have been more. I think I got another rail fatality alert from Railroad Workers United yesterday while we were preparing to do this episode. But I want to at least lift up and honor the lives lost in those three rail fatality alerts that I mentioned. And so I wanted to ask if we could first just go around the table and if we could offer listeners more information about this. What happened? Who were these workers? What were the conditions that led to their deaths?

Matt Weaver: I can give some insight into Randall Howell. H was on a tie gang and he was a foreman. They were at a crossing. There was a flagman on each side of the crossing for directing traffic or stopping traffic. And a servicing team was coming through. A ballast regulator went for a forward motion through the crossing, and came back and dropped the wings of the regulator, I believe. Brother Howell was caught by a wing of the regulator. It’s unforgiving. It was broad daylight. I notified the crew they laid on the horn and said someone just got hit. I can’t speculate on what happened. I have a feeling they’ll blame the dead guy. It’s always blame the worker’ in the rail industry. And well, we’ll learn more but again, it’s an unforgiving industry and with often a lack of manpower. Cutting forces to provide for the business model of precision schedule railroading. We’re trying to do more with less. But often enough, it seems like we’re doing less with less because there’s less freight moving on American railroads than there was perhaps 10 years ago. That’s my insight into that one incident.

“It's always ‘blame the worker’ in the rail industry.”

Mark Burrows: When these incidents happen, it’s hard to get the actual circumstances of what happened in real time, with the exception of a big incident like East Palestine where we were kind of getting periodic updates from the National Transportation Safety Board. But generally, after they do their investigation, maybe a year and a half later, there will be something on their website. So for instance, the brother who was killed with a cut of 30 cars that hit his engine, without knowing all the details, I think it’s fair to say that speed-up in one way, shape, or form or combination of manifestations, is the common thread. Like Matt was saying, more with less, more production, faster, faster, faster, less workers, pressurised, time sensitivity. They’ve cut back on the training. So the short answer for me is, speed-up is without a doubt, the common thread through all of these incidents. Speed-up is everywhere, in all industries– in Amazon– the victims of speed-up will get repetitive motion injuries and serious back injuries. But on the railroad, the victims of speed-up can get maimed or killed. And then the worst case scenario is incidents like Lac-Mégantic and East Palestine where communities are obliterated.

Nick Wurst: One thing I’ll just add on the situation, I’ve never worked as a signal maintainer, but for the engineer who lost his life in the yard, some of these rail yards can be multiple square miles with multiple jobs working with remote control engines. And these can be countless tracks, where cars are being pumped down into the yard using gravity free rolling, with all the cutbacks, like everybody’s mentioned, it’s also a cut back on the number of people who just have their eyes on the operation at any given time. And in a lot of these cases, it’s sort of impossible to be in a truly safe position. Even if you’re in the clear of tracks, cars pick a switch, and then it doesn’t matter, or bad rail gives out, especially in some of these smaller and less maintained yards. So just, it’s impossible. The cutbacks in safety and training were mentioned and that’s obviously a big factor. And the other thing is, there’s so much about railroading that’s inherently sort of dangerous and can’t be proofed with rules. They try to make it so that if you follow any of these 20 bajillion rules at any given time things won’t happen. But inevitably, something does because at the end of the day, you’re dealing with multiple 100 tons of free rolling cars and physics.

“The railroads have placed a dollar value on our lives, and they're willing to roll those dice in order to make billions and billions of dollars in profit.”

Ross Grooters: I think my brothers are exactly right. The through thread for these three deaths and every other death on the railroad is this demand for speed-up. It is doing more work with fewer workers, faster. The root cause is the economics of it. The railroads have placed a dollar value on our lives, and they’re willing to roll those dice in order to make billions and billions of dollars in profit. And as we’ve seen this speed-up occur more through precision scheduled railroading, which is an operating model to maximize that shareholder value and push those profits. We’ve seen less and less focus on safety and more and more focus on that speed-up and that pushed production. And it’s not just the workers on the railroad who are affected, it is also the public, as we’ve seen with the high profile incidents like last February in East Palestine, Ohio.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well let’s dig into that. Because for folks who listen to this show I think we’ve had enough interviews with railroad workers that I think they get the gist of more the basics than your average podcast listener and I have you guys at Railroad Workers United to thank for that. So we can assume that there’s going to be like some background knowledge here from our listeners about how the industry itself has been changing over recent years and decades, the rise of precision scheduled railroading, the corporate consolidation that’s been going on on the railroads for years to the point that we’ve gone from over 40 different rail carriers down to a handful that have just like incredible oligopolistic power over our supply chain.

And as we saw with the high stakes contract negotiation that y’all were embroiled in two years ago, culminating in Congress and scab Joe Biden and everyone else in Washington DC just like gleefully conspiring to shove a contract down workers throats, and give the rail carriers everything they want. Basically, tacitly and explicitly telling the rail carriers, Hey, keep doing what you’re doing, because we’re not going to stop you.” That’s what we have been covering extensively on the show, at The Real News on Breaking Points for years now. So I don’t want to make y’all go over all of that again. But I do want to sort of talk about how those changes affect the safety and of working on the railroads. 

Because, Nick, you mentioned something that really stuck in my ear, about how at a certain point there is no way to make this job completely safe. It’s like with football, you’re never gonna be able to make football completely safe even if you have great helmets. It’s a sport premised on violence. And as railroad workers, y’all have been telling me for years, these trains are incredibly heavy. I mean, they are incredibly dangerous, and you as a human being are the softest squishiest thing in that rail yard. And you were no match for a massive locomotive or anything like that. So I want to sort of talk about those two sides of this. 

If we can go around the table and just talk more about, what do you think folks who don’t work on the railroads don’t understand about just the inherent dangers that you face doing this work regardless? What are the sorts of pressures and dangers and safety measures that you as railroaders just have to work with on a day to day basis given the nature of the work that you do. But then also, let’s talk about how those things have changed over the course of recent years as the precision schedule railroading and this Wall Street-minded mentality has totally taken over the industry, turned it into a profit generating machine for the executives and the shareholders, like Ross was saying, cutting the workforce so they’re piling more work onto fewer workers, making the trains longer, heavier, yada, yada, yada. So let’s talk about that. Let’s go back around the table. Mark, I’m gonna throw it back to you. But yeah, then everyone else just please hop in after he’s done. 

Mark Burrows: Well first, I believe that railroading can be done safe. I mean, yes, under current conditions it is going to work like a potential death trap on a good day. But if the profit motive was taken out of the equation, and the whole priority was to move the nation’s freight safely, so that workers are not compromised, so that the public is not compromised, and so that the freight itself is not compromised, that can be a whole nother discussion, it can be done. That’d be a major paradigm shift, but it can be done. So I just kind of wanted to make that point. And I just want to throw in that precision scheduled railroading gets a lot of attention, and rightfully so. But it’s also just kind of like an oxymoron marketing term for a business model. The speed-up began decades ago. And I can trace it back to the mid-80s. And then precision scheduled railroading in the last 10 plus years has just escalated the speed-up on steroids. I’ll just leave it there for now.

Nick Wurst: I want to just start by agreeing with Mark that railroading can be done safely. But that means safety has to be the number one priority over everything else. And that’s not the case with these railroads. And even providing quality service is not the top priority. Making it look like they’re providing quality service is the top priority. I think there’s a lot to talk about. And one of the things I want to give a little bit of perspective on is, I’m the youngest in terms of seniority, in terms of time on the railroad out of all of us by a significant margin, I think, so one of the things that’s really hammered home to me is there has been an exodus of talent and experience from the rank-and-file of the railroads. 

The number of talented, experienced railroaders who knew how to do the job well and safely has been driven down. They’ve been driven out of the industry over recent decades. And what happened was at a certain point, the railroads cut so much, they cut so many jobs and drove out so many talented people, I’m not talking management here, they started trying to fill the gaps with mass hiring new people. I’m one of those people. And every day is a constant reminder of how little I know, and working with some of the people that I do work with is a constant reminder of how much they know and how much that’s not getting passed down. When I went to conductor training, I had four weeks of training at school. Three of those weeks were in the classroom learning rules. One week was doing anything outside, making hitches, throwing switches. 

I mean, there’s a reason for rules. I don’t want to suggest that the rules are unimportant. But in terms of hands on work, you got one week, and then when I went to training on the job in my area, when I got back home, some jobs I got maybe a week off. When I started talking with more experienced engineers and conductors, they talked about the fact that most of them, their entry point was as a brakeman where for years they made hitches, threw switches as part of a three man crew. There’s this contradiction of the conductor is now the entry point level for train crew. This is where you start, and also the employee who’s technically in charge of the job. You are in charge of all the paperwork, the hazmat material and everything like that, and you’re the employee who’s on the ground actually making the hitches and everything like that. 

When people spent years training as brakemen under conductors, they learned how to do the outside work, making hitches and throwing switches safely and efficiently. They spent years learning how to keep themselves alive and safe before they ever worried about running a job. But now, there’s no more brakemen for the most part. And you start as a conductor. You’re thrown in. You’re running the job, and you’re doing everything else. And so I think that’s one thing. That’s obviously a factor here is that driving out experienced people and trying to mass replace with new people and just chewing through them until they find a few who stick and hopefully make it to becoming sort of experienced employees. There’s of couple other things I could say but I don’t want to take up too much time.

Ross Grooters: I think Nick’s exactly right. I work on a yard job where the age of experience is a year or less right now to hold that job. And it is somebody that’s trying to learn the job and be safe while they’re being asked to perform at an extremely high level and produce. And it’s unrealistic, right? Anytime we see one of these fatalities, what’s happened is layers of protection have been removed. And Nick’s exactly right. You used to have somebody that you were working with an extra set of eyes to be able to tell you to pull your head out of your ass, You’re doing it wrong,” right? Like, here’s how you do this safely and not get yourself in a bind. So, we’ve got these layers of protection that have just been yanked from the industry and they no longer exist. Well, without those layers of protection to prevent those fatalities, we’re going to see more and more fatalities, or more and more injuries, and more and more incidents on the railroads. And until we back off from that push to production being the sole motive, we’re not going to have a safe work environment. I think, Nick, you said this. I think Mark, you said this. For us to have a safe work environment, it’s got to be the top priority.

“For us to have a safe work environment, it's got to be the top priority.”

Matt Weaver: I’ve listened to my brothers talk and I’ve written down some numbers. One of the big ones to me is that I’ve buried 11 of my co-workers that I actually worked with within 100 miles of my home in the last 30 years. Seven of them had non-Hodgkin lymphoma, two had esophageal cancer, and only three of those guys got to retire. It’s pretty shocking. I heard, and it was only a rumor back then when I was hired in, that maintenance people only live 19 months after retirement at 62. We’ve gone to 60 now, so maybe it’s a little better, but it’s pretty frustrating. Max had said something about 40 or 50 railroads. The numbers I saw was that in 1900 there were 132 class one railroads. Today there are six. It’s like the Monopoly board 101. There’s four on the board, well, we’re at six now. But yeah, here’s monopoly. And the price adjustments come in twos and they demarket so they hesitate to favor less profitable shippers, that kind of thing. Another thing, the number that I saw is lots of railroads are shooting for a 55 percent operating ratio. That’s their goal under PSR. I’m under the impression that McDonald’s or Burger King are shooting for like 80 percent or 90 percent. So the profit margins are astounding. Record profits are lost wages or record profits are the cause of inflation, however you want to look at it. But the whole nation is suffering because of the industry’s cutthroat business model. And like I said before in the interview, I sometimes worry about saying things like that and getting fired again, but got to call him out. There’s no reason that the industry should have so many lobbyists and so much money going to finance politicians campaigns. And America in general is suffering but real labor is suffering far worse at this moment.

Maximillian Alvarez: Right. You guys have heard the cost of this. You have heard the voices of railroad workers themselves, like the folks on this call. But you have also heard other railroad workers on the show. And you have heard time and again, the voices of residents of East Palestine. You have heard on the show, what folks like Chris and Jessica Albright are going through, what Darren and Stella Gamble are going through. You have heard the pain that has been inflicted on this community that did nothing to deserve it. But they are the ones paying the price for corporate greed. East Palestine was an avoidable catastrophe. 

And like that’s kind of the point that we’re trying to make here. You could look at something like that and say, well, no East Palestine happened because of a faulty bearing. So that’s what caused it. Or you can say, well, why didn’t anyone catch that in time? Why weren’t car men given more time to inspect that bad car and take it off the rails? Why weren’t the signals being relayed from the hotbox detectors, relayed to the people on the crew sooner? There’s so many questions like that. 

Like Ross was saying, the layers of protection that have been removed over the course of this industry change. That’s what, that’s how these things stack up. And so if something does go wrong, you have removed so many of the safeguards that are there to prevent that thing from turning into something going wrong to something going catastrophically wrong for the workers on the rails and for our own communities like East Palestinian. Those are the stakes of what we’re talking about here. 

Matt Weaver: Along the lines of those safeguards, so back to the numbers, after World War I, there were 2.1 million members of real labor, 2.1 million railroaders. At the end of the last round of bargaining in 2022, there were 117,500. So, of course, there’s technology, of course, there’s paperwork and machinery, but if anyone is out there working alone, no one’s got your back. If anyone is out there taking a call by themselves, who’s going to call 911. We’re facing this scenario where back to the ages of: we build a bridge, and for every million dollars worth of bridge, we’re allowed to have five deaths. What’s the value of life in this industry? It’s very frustrating.

Ross Grooters: So in Iowa alone, in my career, I went back and looked and 15 railroad workers have lost their lives on the job, including two close personal co-workers of mine. Fifteen in 20 years, and that’s just in one state in the nation. These are all preventable. And in all of our careers, we’ve seen far too many of our union brothers and sisters who’ve lost their lives as victims of corporate greed. And it’s really up to us to fight that they’re not just remembered, but their deaths aren’t in vain, that we’re doing things to correct it. We’re fixing the hazards and not continuing to blame the victims as Railroad Workers United would put it.

Maximillian Alvarez: I think that’s really powerfully put. And so I know, Matt, you mentioned the contract negotiations, and that’s where I want us to head here in the final turn. But before we get there, I wanted to pause on on something else that you said about when you’re getting called on to do a job by yourself, and you don’t have anyone watching your back, like I mean, my heart broke reading one of the rail fatality alerts from Railroad Workers United, hearing about this brother on the Ohio Central Railroad, the signal maintainer, who was literally found dead by another crew. Like imagine being in that man’s family, and that is how your loved one was discovered. He went out for work one day. His employer sent him out, it sounds like on a call on his own, gets killed, and his body’s just sitting there waiting to be found. That is not how you treat people. He deserved better than that. This is unacceptable on so many levels. 

And I don’t want to ask this question by way of like, it’s a gory details question. I just wanted to ask for folks who are listening to this, what are the types of injuries or potentially fatal injuries that one could sustain working on the railroads, especially as those layers of protection are stripped away. Are folks most worried about getting struck by something? What sides of the job are made more dangerous because of these speed-ups and because of these staff cuts, so on and so forth? 

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Mark Burrows: I’m sure this is not all inclusive, but off the top of my head, like Nick had said, one loaded car of coal or something can be over 120 tons. So one wrong move, whether it’s a car that ends up being where it’s not supposed to be or something that happens that is not supposed to happen, you can just instantly get crushed. You can have a limb severed. It is just a dangerous environment from the moment you walk in on the job to the moment you’re able to leave in one piece. Like I said, it’s not all inclusive. And then add in being fatigued, working on a 24 hour extraboard, being on call 24/7, going to work on two hours’ notice and you may not have slept for a day and a half. And then other people around you are improperly trained. I’ll leave it there.

Nick Wurst: Going sort of off the top of my head, when I started on the railroad, I actually didn’t start as train crew, I started working in an intermodal yard. And there was a carman, at the time, he’s retired, who liked driving around and showing us all of the missing fingertips he had. I saw a co-worker take gladhands, the airhoses from the hostler truck, came through the back door, hit him in the face, he had to get reconstructive surgery and everything like that. 

One of the things that I think is really scary to me, we hear a lot about horror stories where people are sort of killed through impacts or losing limbs or things like that, but there’s the story that came out, I think in 2022, about the brother who died on the job of a heart condition that he had basically delayed going to the doctor for for a long time because he could never manage to keep any of his doctor’s appointments. And that’s something that really gets me is, yeah, I mean, there’s a certain amount of danger and you sort of accept a certain amount of risk when you go to work, but the idea that there can be all of these things building up because of the conditions we work in, all the medical research about what lack of sleep does to people, I used to and still occasionally have nightmares that I’m at work, and it wakes me up in the middle of trying to sleep between shifts, and you start to wonder, how’s my heart doing with all the caffeine that I’m constantly pounding and trying to stay awake and not sleeping? I think I could handle it better if I got killed by being hit by a train or something. But if I just dropped dead in the seat in the cab one day, you know, show up to work, you look fine, and then die part way through your shift from, I don’t know, my heart giving out or something like that, that that one messes with me a lot.

Maximillian Alvarez: That story always stuck with me too. And I believe we’re thinking of the brother Aaron Hiles who Lauren Kaori Gurley reported on for The Washington Post during the high stakes contract fight, and I really really appreciate Lauren for doing that. And that story really broke my heart as well. There’s so much more to talk about here, but I want us to finish on the question of what can be done. The clock is ticking, like I said. By the time we were all doing our interviews together, that was in 2022, we were years into the contract negotiations at that point. By the time that whole mess was resolved, quote, unquote, we were closer to the next contract bargaining period than we were the beginning of the current one that we were in. So 2025 is going to be a chance to really take the fight back to the carriers. 

And this is also something I want to impress upon people listening because for so much of that fight, as we got closer and closer to potentially seeing a national rail strike or rail lockout in this country for the first time in a generation, a lot of folks were asking, what can I do? What can we even really do at this point? We don’t work on the rails. It feels like the process is so far out of our reach that we don’t know what to do. So I want to ask, okay, we’re here. It’s 2024, we are looking ahead to the next contract bargaining session, we’ve got much more of the public informed about these issues than we did before, what is currently happening? What are the unions doing? What is RWU doing? Is there anything on the legislative side being done to help stop these conditions that we’ve been talking about for the past hour that are making this work increasingly dangerous for workers like yourselves? And what can folks listening out there do to help?

Mark Burrows: On the legislative side, we know all these politicians after East Palestine had this life changing epiphany that there were some safety issues in the railroad industry. It wouldn’t have been such an epiphany if they’d been reading The Highball and went and signed up for our newsletter, but they proposed the Rail Safety Act, which was very watered down and full of loopholes. But there are a few potentially positive things there. And they can’t even get that done. As weak as it is, they can’t even get that done. That’s part of the overall political problem in this country. What happened to us is just part of the political dysfunction, for lack of a better term. 

As far as the unions, one of the things, like Matt pointed out, we’re calling for a real united bargaining coalition that doesn’t cut and run with the first proposal and that no one settles until everyone settles. Railroad workers need to find a way to strengthen our union so that we can more effectively fight and a united bargaining coalition is an important part of it.

And then the public can learn about us and our issues, back us when possible, let your representatives know how you feel, that you support our demands for a safe workplace and a safe working environment, again, which the public has a vested stake in. And then go to our website at rail​road​work​er​sunit​ed​.org and learn about our call for public ownership. It may seem far-fetched and a pipe dream today, but all movements for social justice started out with an idea and a vision. And that’s one way to get the profit motive out of the equation. And I’ll just leave it there for now.

“As much as railroad labor likes to pretend that we're special or we're different somehow and that we're insulated from the others, we're part of the bigger labor movement.”

Nick Wurst: We’ve just passed a resolution that should be going out to the public soon. We’re calling for all of those within rail labor who are interested in trying to have a real fighting approach to the upcoming round of negotiations, to get together and start to discuss what that means. As much as railroad labor likes to pretend that we’re special or we’re different somehow and that we’re insulated from the others, we’re part of the bigger labor movement. And I think we’re seeing some examples of what some relatively militant fightbacks look like, and that they can get results. And so I think that’s obviously the big thing. 

And I think Matt mentioned the numbers in terms of the decline of members, but that’s not just direct job cuts, that’s also increases in things like outsourcing and subcontracting to non-union companies. The fact that that decline in our membership has happened, even the recent declines in recent decades, I think it’s criminal, to be totally honest. And I think that we need that real fightback. 

So what can the public do? I think people who are in the labor movement have a vested interest in every other union and every other worker’s fight as well. Like Mark was saying, what’s happening to us at any given time is the same as what’s happening in every industry. The same way that we in RWU are trying to put pressure on our unions to fight back, other people can do that as well. And I think one thing, if it comes to it, if it comes to picket lines, if it comes to rallies, if it comes to practice pickets, the numbers that Matt gave makes it pretty clear that we need reinforcements. We need backup. Our picket line plans in my area were looking pretty sparse if it had gone down to the last time. 

And I think the last thing I’ll mention, Ross used a really excellent phrase earlier of layers of protection. And I do think that there needs to be a reckoning with the Railway Labor Act, which is the labor law that allowed Biden and Congress to force a contract on us. And I think it’s interesting that one of the other big labor battles going on this year is the flight attendants. The airlines are also under the Railway Labor Act. But when it comes down to it, taking job action, removing ourselves from a dangerous, deadly, unacceptable, work environment and refusing to go back until it’s rectified, that’s the ultimate last line of defense. That’s the last layer of protection. And the RLA makes it so that we don’t have that. I mean, when you really break it down, what it does is it gives these legislators, who have never worked out for the railroad, the ability to order us back into a fundamentally unsafe, unlivable situation. So, I know it’s a bit of a long shot, but while we’re talking about legislation, I don’t think it’s just safety legislation that we need to start thinking about. I think we also need to take a good hard look at the Railway Labor Act.

“Railroads are making billions of dollars and they're doing so on the backs of workers and the public.”

Matt Weaver: And unfortunately, that scenario leads the railroads into a position where they don’t have to bargain in good faith because they know that Congress will stuff an agreement up our asses. And so railroads don’t come to the table in good faith. Right now we have on-property agreements going on all over the place. I heard last week that the railroads want all on-property agreements to be decided by July 1. We’ll see how that goes. But the bargaining, Max, begins in November with Section six notices. In November, section six notices come out. What we want to change, and many of the crafts have done questionnaires and that kind of stuff to see what the guys want, but if we have a real labor bargaining coalition all together, you know, one for all and all for one, then we can speak as one voice. I was very impressed by being under the AFL-CIO TGD umbrella at the end of bargaining. And actually, I think we did okay, except that there were no sick days and they wouldn’t deal with attendance policies. So that was it. We still have a sequester of real labor of RRB, Railroad Retirement Board, sick pay and unemployment, which has gone on for over a decade. We’re losing money for sick pay and unemployment because Congress unjustly sequestered our pay even though RRB doesn’t affect the national budget. We’ve got bills up, we got bills down, we got more bills in, and they want to address it. Public servants? Come on, I don’t think so. I’m very disappointed in much of Congress right now, because they’re not taking care of the constituents and seem to be taking care of the people who finance their campaigns. Last point was, and it’s a big one, along the lines of what Mark said, if we can’t trust our regulators to regulate, perhaps we need to have nationalization of the railroads. If we can’t make things safe with regulation, maybe we don’t need the rail industry to be a for-profit industry. There’s lots of ins and outs in that and it’s a very touchy scenario, and I was a bit against it for the first few years of RWU talking about it. But, we’re getting nowhere. The STB did nothing. The FRA seems to be doing very little, and our members are dying because nothing is happening. It’s time to step up and take care of the people of this country.

Ross Grooters: Railroads are making billions of dollars and they’re doing so on the backs of workers and the public. It’s an outright theft. And the costs are externalized. We’re the ones that face the potential loss of our lives. The public are the ones that face the potential loss of their lives, livelihoods, and homes. This theft has to stop. rail​road​work​er​sunit​ed​.org, you can check out all our information about supporting a public ownership campaign. I can’t think of a better way to scare the shit out of the railroads. 

And when it comes to bargaining, my brothers Mark, Matt, and Nick all hit the nail on the head, but one thing that stands out to me is that we need to be a bigger part of the labor movement as a whole. And we saw United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain lay down a gauntlet and say May 1, 2028, labor needs to come together and set that date to organize towards a general strike. And rail labor needs to step up and be a part of that. So hopefully people can make rail labor leaders aware of that and say, you need to be a part of this part of this.

Maximillian Alvarez: Alright gang, that’s going to wrap things up for us this week. I want to thank our amazing guests, Mark Burrows, Ross Grooters, Nick Wurst, Matt Weaver. And I want to give one more big shout out to Railroad Workers United and all the great work that they do. Go check them out. Go follow them and subscribe to their newsletter. And as always, I want to thank you all for listening. And I want to thank you for caring about this stuff. We will see y’all back here next week for another episode of Working People. And if you can’t wait that long, then you know what you gotta do, go subscribe to our Patreon and check out all the awesome bonus episodes that we’ve got there waiting for you and our patrons. And go explore all the great work that we’re doing at The Real News Network. If you like the work we do here at Working People, you’re going to love the work that we’re doing across The Real News Network, where we do grassroots journalism that lifts up the voices and stories from the front lines of struggle. Sign up for the Real News newsletter so you never miss a story and help us do more work like this by going to the​re​al​news​.com/​d​onate and become a supporter today. I’m Maximilian Alvarez. Take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Solidarity forever.

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