Thursday, September 15, 2022

If I worked on the railroads, I'd vote for a strike, too


All the verbal diarrhea spouted by politicians, railroad business executives and others about how a rail strike would be disastrous for the USA ignores a simple reality.  Rail staff - particularly engineers and conductors - are so over-stressed, over-worked and under-appreciated that I'm astonished they've put up with it for this long.  They need and deserve much better working conditions, but the railroads are refusing to provide them - so let them strike, say I.

Old NFO pointed out on his blog:

Per one of my HS classmates, who is a retired railroad engineer, it’s the lack of work/life balance. Always on call 24/7 for days, weeks, months on end, with no way to schedule time off for family things.

He also said if the engineers and trainmen (conductors) go out, all the other unions will go with them. That would stop the RR cold, and that includes Amtrak, which is apparently already cancelling the long haul routes as of today.

There's more at the link.

When highly trained staff are treated like dirt in one of the most complex and potentially dangerous operating environments in the world, what else can we expect but strike action?

It would be trivially easy for the railroads to hire enough staff to implement a fairer and more balanced system of time on and off work, with guaranteed periods at home with workers' families . . . but for some reason best known to themselves, the railroads won't do that.  It's probably because they don't want to have to spend the money to hire and train more staff, because conductors and engineers are very highly paid in comparison to many other jobs.  That's why they laid off more than 10% of them a year or two ago, and have forced their remaining workforce to make up for the shortfall by working harder and longer hours, to the detriment of their health and their home life.

I'm normally not pro-union, but in this case I'm entirely on their side.  A major east-west rail link runs through the small town in which I live.  Those trains, running through several times a day (sometimes a few dozen times), contain oil, gas, chemicals, and all sorts of other things that would be highly unhealthy (to say the least) if released into the local atmosphere.  If it takes shutting down the railroads to get better, safer operating conditions for those responsible for the trains, then I'm all in favor.  All those who complain that a rail strike would impact our entire economy can ask themselves whether they're in favor of forcing staff in charge of such hazardous substances to get so tired and overworked that they're more likely to mishandle them and/or cause an accident.  If you want to know what that can look like . . .

13 dead, estimated 37 missing after runaway train explodes

Huge explosion erupts after 18-wheeler hits fuel train in Texas

The Kingman explosion

The Waverly Propane Explosion

Chlorine gas from train crash kills 3 near San Antonio

More than 70 sickened from poisonous fumes from N.J. train derailment

Makes you think, doesn't it?  I don't want anything like that happening in my town, and I'm pretty sure you, dear reader, feel the same about yours.  One of the best ways to avoid it is to make sure that those in charge of the train aren't exhausted, drained, overworked and too stressed to make the right call at the right time.

(For once, to my own astonishment, I'm also on the side of Senator Bernie Sanders, who's blocked an attempt to force railroad staff to accept a settlement, even though it would not improve the conditions under which they're obliged to work.  I think he did the right thing.)



Xoph said...

It ain't just the railroads. This issue is endemic in our culture if my experience is any guide.

Standby for rant but if you want the conclusion - Pay bananas - Get monkeys. Treat em badly and get angry monkeys.

45+ years ago my school books talked about how technology was going to make us so productive we wouldn't need to work even 40 hours a week. Not everyone gets to be CEO or even wants to be. How do you motivate the average worker or even the below average worker? 50% of our workforce is below average. Our managers (can't call them leaders) have a distinct lack of leadership and empathy.

I got laid off almost 3 years ago and I've been working various jobs. We've moved 2 hours west allowing us a wider sample of employers. (My wife works HR and none of her experience counters mine) I've come to the conclusion that most employers want serfs who will be glad for crumbs.

The number of employers who think $10 or even $12 per hour is pay that will get them quality employees is staggering. Add to it poor treatment and you have a recipe for poor work. I was senior middle management advising the executives and not one would remember the golden rule. They were always surprised at employee behavior that to me was predictable. Not one ever seemed to ask how they would react if someone treated them that way.

Fortunately I've saved and I'm working more to prevent boredom. Working service jobs I've found many of my co-workers are working 2 or 3 jobs to make ends meet. And all part-time so no benefits. Some had full-time jobs with benefits but got caught in COVID lay offs and have been unable to get back to full-time.

Pick the minimum wage in 1970 or 1980 and run the CPI calculator on what it would be today. I'm hearing most employers in my area are thinking of a 3-6% raise given current inflation and raises should only be done once a year.

Worked for a big box retailer for a bit. Can't go to the bathroom or have water except once every 4 hours on a break. If you're older the bathroom breaks pick you and I'd finish work very dehydrated with muscle cramps. Need water more often-get a doctor's note (Seriously the store manager told me I needed a doctor's note to drink water more often than once every 4 hours). And got a 1% cent raise after 1.5 years even after I was told by a couple of team leads they liked having me cause they could give me a job and knew it would get done.

Another job my manager admitted I maxed every metric but because I was new and still in training (after 1 year) I could only get meets expectations, but I should feel proud because most first year workers couldn't even get that. I could aspire to exceed expectations in a couple of years. What the Fire Truck?

Small private company-tried that twice so far. Do only what the boss tells you. Can't pay more because can't afford to raise prices. The cultural norm now appears to be the boss should make 6 or 7 figures a year but the serfs should be happy with $10/hour. Then the boss comes in showing off latest toy to which the serf could never aspire.

Pay bananas - Get monkeys. Treat em badly and get angry monkeys.

Bobo the Hobo said...

Yup, I agree wholeheartedly. I am not pro-union but if these guys are as overworked as you say they really have no choice. One of my favorite sayings is This sh*t ends when we all stand up. Looks like the railroad workers are now standing up.

Eric Wilner said...

There does seem to be an outbreak of Optimal Manning, which somehow always turns out to be pessimal the moment someone calls in sick and the remaining workers can't keep up.
This is a special case of the general trend toward short-term efficiency, planning down to the last little detail with no margin for error. Works a treat, until Fate throws a monkey wrench in the works. With a highly-optimized global supply chain, an outbreak of the sniffles in some far-off town no one has ever heard of can cause worldwide disruption.
(It's also a case of regarding people as widgets, which is perfectly normal thinking for Communists, or the World Economic Forum, take your pick.)

Dave said...

There are other choices and striking is not one of them. In the US, railways have always had huge leverage. When they were being built, the land was granted by the government for the good of the people and inside folks made big bucks. The Railway Labor Act put more impediments in the way of commerce in an effort to placate those using the rails while allowing the government to mess up the work place.

In the 1960s, Congress turned down US high speed rail and put the emphasis on travel into the air. The major rail problem was the track weld which could have been corrected, but the federal money flow was to the airlines. Note 1: The high speed trial track is just outside Pueblo, Colorado, and the engines and cars are on display in Pueblo. Note 2: The Chinese built high speed maglev trains using American knowledge and European parts. The US maglev train is outside D.C. and does not work.

The argument that rail workers need to strike is similar to those we had pushed down our throats about banks being too big to fail, or no money down mortgages, or student loans, or that we can't have dams to store water because some unknown creature will die, and so on till we the taxpayers vomit. Let them fail. Let them go out of business. Let commerce be disrupted. The arguments don't work when examined closely.

No, strikes only punish the tax paying Americans. If rail workers don't like the job, go somewhere else. Don't push the burden off onto the middle class taxpayer again.

Celia Hayes said...

I was always told that the best option for a workplace was to be routinely and slightly inefficient - so that there was slack to be taken up in emergencies. Saw that over and over again in the military: that when we were working full out, 100% of the time, there was no room for someone to fall suddenly ill, or to go on leave.

JG said...

My youngest son worked for Comcast and his group was having issues. He and others have quit. He was in the most growing area of Georgia. He told me he expects others in his group to quit. They were being overworked, mis-managed, and the area the covered is very wide so they often would take 30-40 minutes to get from one location to another. Comcast is also low of equipment. He said Comcast pay structure was lousy and he had better things lined up.

boron said...

If the geniuses can demand $15 per for burger-flippers, what are RR engineers worth?
What is the dollar worth?

Gerry said...

If you think the labor issue ends with train personnel, you best look at the lack of investment on the rail system itself. Signals, rails and switch maintenance has all been deferred or eliminated.

When I took the Metroliner to NYC, there were several bridges that could only be traveled at 30 MPH. Steam engines went faster than that,

But I am sure diversity training is currant and up to date.

Comrade Misfit said...

I know a couple of both active and retired railroad workers. The companies have ground them down; what was once a decent job is now a shit show.

Gerry, to be fair, some of the reason why those trains run so slowly in places is that there are tunnels dating back to before the Civil War. There are moveable bridges that go back to Teddy Roosevelt's time, if not before. To blame that on diversity is pretty unfair.

Rocketguy said...

Similar thoughts here. My small neighborhood in WV is boxed in by the Potomac River on one side and the railroad on the other. One is rumbling through as I type. One of my pastimes when I have to wait at the crossing is pulling up my DOT Emergency Response Guide app and looking up any UN numbers I’m not familiar with. Needless to say - there are plenty of materials I’d rather not have to deal with. I’m also not typically a union supporter but this is an exception.

I highly recommend the app. It can be amusing at times like these or when following trucks on the road but might provide critical information at an accident scene - the difference between “no big deal - check on the people”, “oh, crap, get the driver out then clear the area” and “Run!”

Mind your own business said...

Unions in private businesses (as opposed to public, i.e., government) are just as legitimate as the businesses themselves. They have the right to pool their labor for purposes of negotiating and taking away the power leverage that businesses would otherwise have.

That doesn't mean all unions are beneficial to their workers. Combine an avaricious union with incompetent management, and you will see industry failure. If the railroad industry as a whole does not invest in their infrastructure or their workers, disasters will occur.

I was on the emergency response team for inbound chemicals for one of the chemical plants of a large multinational chemical company. We had a "rule of thumb" at a railcar derailments ... if you can't cover the railcar with your thumb held at arms length, you were standing too close.

Sherm said...

I seem to recall, years ago when the railroads still rain three man crews, that the union tactic was to work to the rule book instead of a strike. The resultant slow down was monumental but the companies looked like the bad guys.

Michael Downing said...

I have never been pro nor anti union, but I wouldn't belong to one and believe no one should be forced to join one to work. I ran a union manufacturing facility outside Seattle for over 5 years. I got along fine with the union management and found some of the antics between union reps and plant management to be a dog and pony show.

That being said unless the pResident in chief has the balls to stand up to the union and suffer the consequences of a long term strike then he had better get the railroads to negotiate this matter into the history bin.

The effects of strike are deeper than many can understand.

Rick said...

When a buddy arrainged for me an interview with UP, I asked about the working conditions.

I haven't forgotten my shock when he said you don't get time off. Sure you work your hours but you're always on call.

If thats the bitch today, they knew what they were getting into. I reckon they were lured by the big money and thinking they could get used to the rest.

After years of getting used to it, now they want to strike? I say someone put a bug in someone's ear. Then it spread as such crap usually does.

Has anyone asked, Why now?
Ya know, whatwith puddingcup occupying the chair, with all the other garbage rolling downhill these days, why not now.

Gator McCluskey said...

You’re a real prince, pRick.

GuardDuck said...

Well, I do work for a railroad. Engineer at one of the big ones.

Rick asked, why now? Because what happened 15 years ago when I hired out was that an employee was given wide lattitude to take unpaid time off. That there were plenty of breaks and lunch periods when working in the yards. These weren't necessarily written into the union agreements. Those agreements that were originally written 120 years ago. Where it states things like someone can work 11-1/2 hours and is only reqired to get a single 20 minute lunch break.

This was ok, because the company was ran by people who understood that was medieval. That you couldn't, in modern America, treat workers with 19th century work rules. And the employees understood too, that sometimes shit happened and that some days a crew would be asked to only take the 20 minute lunch because there was some bottleneck that needed to be taken care of.

But over the last 5 years the managment has decided that if the agreement says 20 minute lunch - that's all you get. And they consider the minute I stop moving my engine for lunchtime to be the start of that 20 minutes. Used to set the brakes, walk into the lunchroom. Heat a meal in the microwave, use the bathroom - etc. Now I don't have time to spend 4 minutes securing my engines and another 5 walking across the yard to the lunch room - since I have to reverse that and have the engine moving again at the end of that 20 minutes. So now, I stay on the engine. Eat a cold lunch - while sitting 5 feet away from a port-a-potty. It's a nice, peaceful time.....

And they decided that since there was nothing 'specific' in the labor agreements about attendence, that they could start treating our attendence more like a job that had regular days off - which, of course, we don't have. Yeah, they told us when we hired on that we were always on call, with no scheduled days off. But they also said you could always take time off for necessary life actions, and that our contracted vacation and personal leave (in lieu of holiday pay) days were our own...

That's no longer the case either.

And that doesn't even get into the pay that has not kept up with inflation. Plus every time we have got a raise in the past, either health insurance went up or union dues did - to take it away.

I've heard people say if we don't like the job, go somewhere else - even here on this thread. We are. This is a job that traditionally one couldn't even get unless you knew someone. Now they can't find people willing to do it. Now we've started hiring ex-cons (really, I had a trainee a few months ago who spent 12 years in for manslaughter). Now we have people who have 10-15 years of seniority just up and leaving. When one can drive local truck or work construction for just few dollars less AND be home every night with a set schedule, the lure of the crap we're putting up with pales. Even when doing so loses that guys entire railroad retirement pension, they are still leaving. Yeah, that's why most don't leave. Need 20 years to get your pension if you go out on a disability. Need to retire at 63 to get a minimum of it otherwise. If you leave earlier, all the money you've contributed to it is gone. That'll keep a guy around. Won't make him a happy employee though.

Rick said...

First, I will not and have not ever said or thought that a worker should work elsewhere. To say that is, at most, disingenuous for it ignores the issue, the issue being why conditions are bad enough that one would complain. Actually, I think its BS because a guy should be able to stay at the job he likes rather than be run off.

Guard Duck, so now its bad because the people in charge are upholding the terms of a 120 yr old contract whereas up until a few years ago, the admin were complacent? Where o where has the union been all that time?

That is very strange; I much prefer an admin which upholds the terms rather than an admin of complacency. Yet here, it is the lax admin who were more beneficial/benevolent to the workers.

[A non-compliant admin is apt to make up the rules, and selective enforcement thereof, which tends to be deleterious to the worker.]

GuardDuck said...

I didn't say you said that. It was said by someone else.

I don't know where the union has been. I'm not a huge fan of them either. But at the same time - the railroad union is not the same as the teacher's union. The railway labor act neuters the traditional union power. This whole 'strike' paranoia thing for example. The law limits our ability to strike - it sets specific procedures that have to occur before we can, and if other things happen, we can't. It also details what is a major issue, and what is considered something minor. Sometimes the courts won't even let the unions discus certain things in negotiations.

Most of the time, we, the labor are told by the unions that the only real thing the national negotiations can do is get raises and healthcare. Everything else is supposed to be off the board. This time labor said 'enough' - you will push for these things or we will wildcat strike anyway. Such a thing would be a defacto no confidence in the union and would make it collapse. That's why it hasn't been addressed.

By the way - how many stupid an unenforced old laws do you currently live under? You think the police aren't doing their job right because they don't arrest you for wearing plaid on Sundays or something stupid like that? If they suddenly did start enforcing them, is it the people's fault they didn't have the law changed earlier?

Aesop said...

The only excuse any union has to exist is to guarantee safe working conditions for its members.

Anything else is naked greed and envy.

The railroad union is well within their rights this time, and federalizing them if they strike won't cut it.
You can't run a railroad at bayonet-point, as dotGov is about to find out if they try.

And unlike with PATCO, the country will begin to actually starve before the RRs could hire and train enough staff from scratch to make a difference.

Irresistable force is about to meet immovable object.

Stand well clear.

Paul, Dammit! said...

It was an eye opener to see just how poorly working conditions have gotten for railroad workers. On bad weather days, getting our butts kicked at sea, I've taken part in more than one conversation where someone dreams of swinging a sledgehammer in the rain at some shitty railroad siding while an engineer yells at them. You don't get thrown out of your bunk near as much on a train, we believe.
Maritime companies are in the middle of a massive manning crisis. My employer, too, was following the leader in not replacing employees as they left, but rather offering more overtime to existing employees- the same strategy that airlines and railroads have been doing, which has resulted in mass cancellations of trips in all 3 industries. It's a short-term solution. Long-term, it doesn't work. My employer finally opened up the pocketbooks and started recruiting again, which has stopped the hemorrhaging, and we're recovering.
Thing is, sailors have particular laws that protect us from some of the awful things the railroads are doing to their people. Mariners are by default considered special wards of the court when injured or oppressed, as as result of historically being exploited. Rairoad workers have no such protections, and look at what happens to them. It's as good an argument for a union as I've heard, and I celebrate the day I was able to get a job on a non-union boat.

I feel dirty that I too am in agreement with that decrepit old commie from Vermont.

Eric Wilner said...

Some very interesting info in the comments so far!
Sounds like, over the many decades, the railroads and their workers had (absent any ability to change the contractual provisions dealing with working conditions) come to a workable, informal accommodation.
Then, not so many years back, the railroads started on a Manage-To-Rule policy, trashing the accommodation and returning to the bad old days before organized labor was a thing? Is this about right?
In the real world, a lot of business relationships depend on unwritten understandings. This generally works. If one party decides to get obnoxious, things fall apart. But when the contract is wildly lopsided and the party that has the short end of the written contract is also constrained by special laws, well, things can get real dysfunctional real quick.

... Now I'm wondering how many members of upper management in the railroad biz have any railroad experience. Are they all just well-credentialed generic biz-school grads who know the secret executive handshake? (Yeah, yeah: kings are fungible; speaking the language of one's subjects is not a job requirement.)

Jonathan H said...

The railroads have been working themselves out of business for years now, with mergers that went badly, constantly rising rates, lots of delayed shipments and more.
A VERY large facility near me was looking at putting in a rail spur to reduce truck traffic - the local railroad was not at all helpful and the spur would have cost $360 million up front, so they stayed with trucks...

Rick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rick said...

Guard Duck,
I offer my apologies. I omitted that part where I would have said that I did not think you included me. The apparent result of my failure to communicate was I assigned to you that which you had not said. I apologize for the misunderstanding.

GuardDuck said...

NP :)

Antibubba said...

You find yourself in the same camp as Bernie because this isn't about ideology. It's about safety and working conditions and other issues that are so basic that politics shouldn't even be an issue.