Pushing Train Crews and Other Railroad Workers to the Brink

What caught my attention to the potential train strike was it not being clear as to why. No one source was explaining why train crews and other crafts were angry at the railroad companies. Doing some reading I came away with a better understanding. Aaron Gordon at Vice does an excellent depiction of the issues.

Biden stance on this issue is very similar to the screwing over of Students with their student loans. He made certain the law would stop any bankruptcy claim by students. Bankruptcy claims trump availed himself of, as well as thousands of other citizens were blocked. Decades ago, Congressional laws were put in place to stop railroad labor from striking. Congress is helping big railroad interests.

This issue is clearly about normal time off after schedules and the government assists Railroads in blocking it.

The Worst and Most Egregious Attendance Policy’ Is Pushing Railroad Workers to the Brink,” vice.com, Aaron Gordon

The question is why were train workers so mad causing them to prepare to strike? Well, the major freight rail companies were short-handed after years of labor cuts and quits. Rail companies were introducing draconian attendance policies on railroad crews and other workers. These newer policies were causing workers to be constantly on call, tired, sick, and stressed from company demands. It is hardly the mindset they should want of the people operating trains that, with one mistake, become giant bombs or poison clouds. 

Railroad workers:

  • want the freedom to have normal time off after a haul and have access to sick days.
  • plan time off in advance for doctor appointments, vacations, and important family events and,
  • to know they will actually be able to take it.

All of which they are currently unable to do due to being on call 90% or 75% of the time.

Cuts in crews and workers were resulting in lower costs for railroads. They were implementing stricter scheduling of labor, trains laden to capacity, and longer trains. All of which was done to maximize profits and have greater returns to investors. And it did.

January 10, 2022 found, BNSF announcing a new attendance policy calling it the “Hi Viz” program. The program supposedly would improve upon the old system. A BNSF statement said

“Hi Viz will provide more predictability for our train crews, while also providing more reliable crew availability, and ensuring BNSF has sufficient employees available to work.”

It did improve upon crew availability by imposing the new scheduling. It also implemented measures intended to penalize train crew members if they were not available to work. The new system was gluing workers to their phones waiting for a call to go into work. It had little leeway for emergencies and virtually assures workers will see their families for just a few hours a week.

Normal employees know their work schedule in advance and plan their lives accordingly. The railroad doesn’t work in such a manner. Freight trains do not have set schedules. The seven largest “Class I” freight rail companies in North America operate under a system called “Precision Scheduled Railroading.” BNSF did not implement PSR as a corporate philosophy. It did adopt many of its principles such as longer trains, a drastically reduced workforce, and a greater emphasis on profit in lieu of maintenance. 

However, train crews and customers were discovering PSR is neither precise nor scheduling properly. 

In today’s practice, railroad scheduling waits for trains to have enough cargo loaded to recoup costs and be profitable for a run. At which point when at an optimal amount, the companies will call crews in to make the run. At the other end at the arrival terminal or rail ~12 hours out from the home terminal, new local crews took over. The original crew will hole-up in a hotel. During which time they are waiting unpaid for 18 to 48 hours to crew a train back towards home.

When they are paid, the lax time of waiting, burns into personal time. Time in which to go to the doctor, be with families, and rest from the stress of their job. Since they are on call with little warning, they stay close to their work centers.

The lack of a set and accurate train schedule forces crews to be near phones to receive the call to crew a train. Upon receipt of a call, they had 90 to 120 minutes to reach the terminal.

Conductors and engineers abide by an on-call system.

Under the old system called the ATG at BNSF, workers had to be on call 75 percent of the time. Under the new system they would not be working all of the time. Still they had to be ready to work within two hours, meaning they couldn’t schedule doctor appointments, go far from home, see a movie, or participate in any other activity without a phone. 

Even with the unpredictability of the ATG scheduling, it was still believed to be a fairer system when compared to the newer system. Under BNSF new Hi Viz system, in court filings the union estimates workers have to be on call upwards of 90 percent of the time. Not just waking hours, but all hours. 

Hi Viz” uses a points system to measure productivity and lost call time. When it went into effect on February 1, each worker started with 30 points.

“Other than the federally-mandated time off, the only way a worker can stop being on call after a shift (spent in a hotel away from home) is to lay off. This can come with a points deduction. The deductions range two to 15 points or more depending on the timing and circumstances. Point deductions are generally not in an employee’s control. Nearly all holidays such as Christmas, New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, Super Bowl Sunday, and Halloween are “high impact days. Those days cost almost as many points as not showing up for work. Take two holidays off and most workers would be out of points.”

It gets more vindictive and crazier . . .

The only way a worker can get more points is by being on call for 14 straight days. At which point they accrue a “good attendance credit” of four points. According to court filings, if employees have to take time off for an illness or condition that qualifies for the Family Medical Leave Act, an injury on duty, a scheduled vacation, or any other paid personal leave, the 14-day clock will reset. If they miss a call, are sick, have a sick family member, or other kind of family emergency, they will lose points for the absence and the 14-day clock resets.

Finally . . .

If an employee uses all 30 points from taking two holidays. They are suspended for 10 days. An investigation is conducted. They start again with 15 points. If they lose those 15 points, they are suspended for 20 days, They then go back to 15 points. If they lose those 15 points, they risk termination resulting from a third time.

Hi Viz is pushing people to a breaking point. There is little flexibility in it for train crews to get time off for doctor visits. “These guys are having to choose, because of Hi Viz, whether they save their points or they go to a brother or uncle’s funeral. I had one guy who didn’t have any points to take off because he had just been sick in the ER and couldn’t take his pregnant wife to the doctor.” He says the workers he talks to are “at their wit’s end.”

BNSF Locomotive Engineer Story

28 Freight Rail Workers Tell Us What They Want You to Know About Their Lives,” vice.com, Aaron Gordon

This inevitable nationwide railroad strike is NOT about money! It is about dignity and the balance of a fair work life. Being subject to work 90 percent of the time is not what we signed up for! We signed up for a 75 percent availability policy! And even this restricts work-life balancing.

For every one day I take off unpaid, it takes me 14 continuous working days to earn it back. Do that math. That is our so-called “sick time.” If you want to remain employed you better not take more than one day off a month, and you most definitely better not miss a call or get into an accident on the way to work. That will eat half of your lifetime points and will take you six months to gain back from continuous day-after-day working events.

Understand that we do not have set days off a month like most all other jobs. We do not have weekends. We do not have a routine or accurate schedule. Every day is the same for us. We never know when we will be going to sleep on any given day or night. 40 hours a week does not apply to us.

The same as his past practices with student loan, Biden gives in to moneyed business interests. He could have started a negotiation while forcing railroad works to stay working.

500 Labor Historians Condemn Biden on Railroads | Portside

Once Again, Rail Workers Lose (vice.com)

Railroad Engineer on the Imposed Contract: “It Really Fell Short of Railroad Workers’ Needs” | Portside,