The way to achieve good labor relations between U.S. freight railroads and their craft employees is “not a mystery,” according to Ron Kaminkow, organizer of the Railroad Workers United (RWU), an interunion group that consists of union members from various crafts. 

FreightWaves recently caught up with Kaminkow to discuss labor morale, as well as what long-standing issues the Class I railroads and the unions are grappling with at the national and local level. While RWU is not one of the groups that participates in labor negotiations, its members are voting members of the various unions.

This interview follows an April 21 announcement from 14 rail labor organizations calling for U.S. freight rail companies to halt stock buybacks until the railroads make significant investments in rail safety. The groups — which included the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers-Transportation Department — contend that the six publicly traded freight railroads have spent more than $165 billion in stock buybacks. That figure is at least $46 billion more than what was invested in rail safety, according to the labor organizations, which launched their public campaign during the earnings season of the Class I railroads. 

Separately, RWU recently noted the inclusion of the Class I railroads on a list of employers that have unsafe environments. That list was produced by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a coalition of 26 grassroots worker groups calling for improvements to worker health and safety. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

FREIGHTWAVES: What other negotiations do the unions and the Class I railroads need to hash out beyond sick leave?

KAMINKOW: The individual carriers basically started plans for single-person operation negotiations, of which we’ve been pushing back against now for almost 19 years. But [Norfolk Southern] CEO Alan Shaw, who has been on the hot seat for Norfolk Southern especially since the East Palestine wreck, was in the spotlight in front of a congressional committee. They’re asking him, “What is your plan to negotiate single-person train operations?” And of course, he doesn’t answer. He says all options are on the table and all this kind of stuff, but he doesn’t say that they’re pursuing it, because he knows if he says that in front of Congress and the American people and the people of East Palestine, there’s going to be a s–tstorm and so he can’t say that. 

So it was fascinating — within hours of his testimony, Norfolk Southern came out and said single-person crews are off the table in this round of bargaining. They had got backed into a corner where they literally had to pull it off the table. Within days, it was then the Union Pacific that backed away from running utility conductors on a very simple subdivision where there’s a highway running right along the railroad mainline. 

Read: Norfolk Southern, SMART-TD reach agreement addressing some work-life balance issues

There’s tens of thousands of miles of track in this country. … If a train were to have a breakdown of any sort and need to be inspected or gotten hit by a hot box or was dragging an equipment detector, there’s no utility person for miles and miles, and that person can’t even access that railroad. The only way to access it is by high-rail truck on the rail or by foot or by train. … Having a conductor in the cab of the locomotive means that that thing can be perhaps fixed and on its way in a half-hour or two hours. Wait for a utility conductor [and] it could be literally days, so it’s all smoke and mirrors and it’s all nonsense. … 

The carriers were ready to witness a national rail shutdown for the first time in 30 years, knowing full well that they could have simply come to the table and said, “OK, [we’ll give you]  three or four days of sick leave,” and that would have settled it. It wasn’t like the votes were overwhelmingly negative and that would have tipped the balance. But they didn’t, and they risked a national shutdown as a result. And then two months later, they have the audacity to say, “We’re willing to negotiate on sick time.” Now why the change of heart? Did they decide, “Yeah, we weren’t very nice”? Not exactly. They had so much egg on their face.

So, I think the Class Is figured something’s going to be legislated, and rather than have that rammed down our throat without loopholes, [they thought] ‘we know that at the bargaining table we can negotiate.’ And of course, what they did was they negotiated four days of sick time and three flex days turning personal leave into sick time, whereas the call federally was for seven sick days universal across the board.

The thing that is driving their behavior is the stock price, the operating ratio, the dividends and the wealth of the corporation. And if they determine that it’s time to cut costs and lay off workers and fire people, they’re gonna do it. I mean, the leopard doesn’t change his spots.

FREIGHTWAVES: What can be done to repair the relationship between the railroads and union workers?

KAMINKOW: If the carriers really want good labor relations, it’s not a mystery. We know what workers want. Railroad workers want adequate staff to do the job properly. They want the tools that they use, whether it’s locomotives, cars or otherwise, they want those tools to be properly maintained. They want to have pride in their jobs. They need adequate time off with their families to recharge. They don’t want to come to work fatigued, endangering their lives and the lives of their co-workers or passengers. They definitely do not want to run trains by themselves. And they do not want long, cumbersome, heavy trains that are prone to break in twos, other mechanical failures, increase the propensity towards derailments, increase the likelihood that the derailment will be catastrophic because the train is so huge. 

These are some of the things that we want, and I can only imagine going to work where the railroad is actually run professionally. I’ve never done it even [when I was working] with Conrail 27 years ago. It’s emergency crisis management on an hour-to-hour, day-to-day basis. There’s never enough staff usually, the trains rarely run on schedule and they’re prone to equipment failure endlessly. And you know, it doesn’t have to be this way. 

For example, the Japanese started a high-speed train in 1964. It’s been running now for almost 60 years. It’s never had a fatality. It’s never more than 10 or 15 seconds late, except in extreme situations. A railroad can be run this way. It takes money. It takes personnel, it takes professionalism. It takes dedication. The U.S. railroad system, privately owned as it is, based on a “make as much money as you can in the next quarter model,” doesn’t do any of this stuff — nothing, nothing. 

Not only that, we’re moving 21% less freight than we moved in 2006. If we were moving 21% more freight, I might have a little sympathy for the industry, like, you got to move an extra car for every five that used to move. I understand, it is limited infrastructure — it’s a lot of money to invest in double tracking and so forth and so on. But they’re not. They’re moving a quarter, 20 or 21% less freight.

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Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.

Related links:

Sick leave, crew consists still on the table between unions, railroads

Union Pacific, SMART-TD agree to suspend train crew reconfiguration

Rail unions seek greater federal oversight to make operations safer

Rail unions rally for sick leave

Rail industry must overcome strained labor relations in order to survive

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