For years, freight rail workers have been literally begging anyone to pay attention to what is going on in their industry. Long before pandemic-induced labor shortages, they have watched giant corporations slash the workforce, deteriorate working conditions on the railroads, and enact increasingly draconian attendance policies. The overall conditions, they have been saying for years, make the railroads more dangerous not only for themselves but for all Americans who live in the towns and cities these trains pass through.
"I implore anyone who might be watching who has the authority to act to please act now,” said Jason Cox of the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen in a video posted to Youtube in February 2021. Nobody did.
But after years of begging, people are finally listening. The plight of freight rail workers has become front page news in recent days as an industry-wide strike looms and threatens the nation’s economy. Early Thursday morning, the union leadership reached a tentative deal to temporarily avert a strike, but that deal still needs to be approved by the rank and file union members.
Thus far, media coverage of the looming strike has mostly focused on how the economy is going to grind to a halt in the event of a strike and how this would affect the midterms elections and you, the consumer, who for your entire life has been relying on this largely invisible but very dangerous and difficult labor. This coverage typically summarizes the labor dispute as one about sick time. While not factually incorrect, this drastically oversimplifies why freight rail workers want to strike and why they may vote against the tentative agreement.
In the hours immediately before the tentative agreement was announced, Motherboard spoke to 28 freight rail workers and wives of freight rail workers—the workforce is overwhelmingly male—over the phone and email. Motherboard asked them what they wanted the American public to know about their jobs. These people work for different companies in different jobs in different parts of the country. But they all told a remarkably similar story, one of desperation, exhaustion, anger, and resentment towards management for years of having basic dignities taken away from them. The unifying message was this is not about pay, or even about sick leave per se. It is about having a life outside the railroad, not missing out on their kids growing up, being able to attend to one’s basic personal needs. For some of them, it is about the basic concept of restoring hope that their lives can be about anything more than the railroad.
Nearly all of them referenced a quote from the Presidential Emergency Board recommendations meant to broker an agreement that only fanned the flames: “The Carriers maintain that capital investment and risk are the reasons for their profits, not any contributions by labor.” They see this as a slap in the face after years of being told to show up to work during a pandemic because they are “essential.”
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One worker named Andrew quit his job at one railroad company, BNSF, about a year ago. “By the end of my 10 years it didn't matter how much money they threw at me,” he told Motherboard. “That job changed me. I didn't feel as if I was even a person anymore. I'd lost my hobbies, my friends, and my fiancée. More importantly I'd lost any reason to live.”
Motherboard granted the workers anonymity so they could speak freely as there is a widespread culture of retaliating against workers for speaking to the press. The testimonials below have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Conductor and Engineer, BNSF
The best thing to tell the American public is we have so little time off now that we have to parent our children via FaceTime. In order to discipline my children or console them when they’re upset about something or why they never see me, I have to do it via FaceTime. To go to a sporting event, I have to go via FaceTime.
As a patriot and someone who really cares about this country, I do not want to strike. But we’re past the point of being polite.
Locomotive Engineer, BNSF
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!
For every one day that 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.
Every day is the same for us. We never know when we will be going to sleep on any given day or night
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.
That is why we are fighting back. That is why we want to strike. That is why we are asking Congress to NOT intervene in our legal process. This is why we need public support.
One thing people fail to realize is a day off is not an off day. My call time is from 5 am to 8 am and then from 2 pm to 4 pm and then 9 pm to 12 pm. So say I make it through. That’s a day wasted where I sat around instead of taking care of everyday life, because I have to be in position if that phone rings.
Conductor, Union Pacific
The manpower issues on the railroad are self-manipulated. All through the pandemic they told us how important we were, as they were furloughing people to maximize their profits and break records. They furlough people so willy-nilly between that and the attendance policies people don't want to come back. The benefits get worse, the raises don't cover inflation, we have been working without a raise for three years, there is no reason for new people to hire out. Magnifying the man power issues. It wasn't always like this. As short as 10 years ago you could be proud to work for these companies.
This looming strike has very little to do with money (yes everyone would like more money) the main thing us rails want is unpaid time off when we are sick, our families are sick or to make a loved one’s funeral!
I’m tired of being tired all day every day and having to listen to every one of my coworkers being physically sick from sleep deprivation, most of my coworkers can’t stay awake anymore during a 12 hour trip! So I’m the only one running the train and if I fall asleep that could mean catastrophe running a loading oil train through highly populated urban areas!
I wish people knew that we don't get weekends off and can, and frequently do, work up to 276 hours a month by law.
Track Inspector, CSX
The railroad used to be a good career. Now it's just a job. You just hope to not be injured just so some rich guy on the board can buy another Ferrari.
Wife of Conductor, BNSF
I wish people understood this isn’t a case of “they knew what they signed up for.” This is NOT the railroad of yesteryear. This is NOT the railroad my husband signed on with in 2012. We knew going in it would be overtime, trips away from home, hard work in the elements, etc. These workers are fine with that. It used to be that they compensated them for it appropriately with pay and benefits, including time off.
They go to work sick, they miss funerals of loved ones, they miss final goodbyes to parents on hospice, they miss holidays, birthdays, all of it.
Over the last 10 years, our insurance coverage has gotten progressively worse, wages have stayed stagnant, and demands placed on the workers in the form of draconian attendance and availability policies have reached an unlivable point. They want them on call or on shift 90 percent of their life. They go to work sick, they miss funerals of loved ones, they miss final goodbyes to parents on hospice, they miss holidays, birthdays, all of it.
Locomotive Engineer, CSX
Most of us have a sense of pride in the execution of our craft, and its effect on our nation. We are cognizant of its importance to the supply chain and what we mean to the customers who depend on us to deliver the raw materials and finished goods this country demands. I am proud of that. But there is a personal toll when you spend most of your life away from home, eating cheap food and sleeping in hotels you probably wouldn’t choose to spend your vacation in. All of it on-call, 24 hours a day. I don’t think we mind what is asked of us, as long as we are treated with the dignity and respect us railroaders are asking for in these contract negotiations.
Wife of Engineer, BNSF
I have a shirt that says “I’m a railroad wife” on the front and then on the back it says “Yes, he’s working. No, I don’t know when he will be home. Yes, we are still married. No, he isn’t imaginary.” It used to be a joke shirt, but now it’s just a sad shirt.
I just think it's so hard for people to grasp how shitty most railroader's quality of life is. You literally could get a call to go to work at any minute. Doesn't matter what you’re doing or where you are, if your phone rings, you have 90 minutes to be at work. You will then work 12 hours, after which, you will be taken to a hotel for an indeterminate amount of time. This hotel time is generally, in my experience, 12 to 36 hours. During this time, you are supposed to get rested, however, you have no idea when that phone will ring, could be midnight; could be 8 in the morning, you never know. When the phone does ring, you work 12 hours and go home. That would conclude one trip. After 12 hours, you start the process again.
This is your life, no set days, no real way to make sure [you’re off] for a doctor’s appointment, a kid’s birthday, anything. Ever. Even if you were to get a day off, you wouldn't know if you actually had that day off, up until the minute the day off is scheduled to start.
Despite having a near perfect attendance record in over 10 years, if I for some reason sleep through my call tonight (I’m available to be called at around midnight tonight), I will automatically be served an investigation letter (in addition to losing my hi viz points) to put me basically on trial as to why I’m such a bad employee. One more missed call, or any anomaly to their system in the same calendar year and I will be assessed 10 days off unpaid to go permanently on my record. They have no empathy or compassion.
What people don’t understand about my job is the fact you have no life.
Most guys out here including myself, are either on prescription antidepressants or self medicate alcohol. Like most guys I work with around my age, I’m currently filling out a resume.
What people don’t understand about my job is the fact you have no life. Precision railroading has only made this worse. Your life revolves around waiting for the phone to ring to come into work or sleeping to be ready when the phone does ring.
Andrew, Former Conductor, Norfolk Southern (quit last year)
We're on call 24/7/365. You get a handful of personal days. The problem is they never approve them. The company decided for attendance-related issues the weekend ran from Thursday afternoon til Monday. If you tried getting a day approved during that time, forget it. If you got approved in the time they allowed that still didn't mean you were going to get the day off. They could call you up until 11:59 p.m. the night before and be on a train going to who knows where coming back who knows when.
Forget taking the kids to the beach, going to the fair or apple orchard, but what about things you have to have off? My doctors aren't going to be ok with me waltzing in whenever I want. For stuff like that you can't risk taking a personal day, you have to call in sick. Some feel this is intentional, but they cut the call offices down to bare bones. Most feel this is to persuade you not to call in. Most times you're on hold for over an hour waiting for someone to pick up. In that time you're on hold they can (and have) called people on a different line for you to go to work. At that point if you mark off on the call [don’t go into work] it's a pretty fast track to termination.
By the end of my 10 years it didn't matter how much money they threw at me. That job changed me. I didn't feel like I was even a person anymore. I'd lost my hobbies, my friends, and my fiancée. More importantly I'd lost any reason to live.
Signal Maintainer, BNSF
I maintain the grade crossings, switches and signal systems. I am fortunate in that I have set hours. M-F 7am-4pm. However, we are on call every night of the week. It is not unusual to get home at 5 and get called back for a trouble call. I am tied to my phone 24 hours for six days of the week. By contract we are on call one day every weekend as well.
What is worse is if we do get off at 4pm, we are considered fully rested at 2am (10 hours off). So I could get home at five and have a normal evening, watch the news at 10, go to bed at 10:30pm then get called after three hours and be expected to work for 12. Train crews have it far worse with their scheduling.
I feel like we are fighting for all of the working class, not just rail employees. It is time to stand up and say no more to corporate greed.
The media keeps saying that we get up to five weeks of vacation and 10 personal days. Five weeks is for those close to retirement. I have 17 years and get three weeks and one personal day. I am unaware of any craft that gets sick days. I got COVID in August and had to take five days off minimum. Not by choice. Company mandated. I was fortunate that I had a few vacation days to use but still had to take a couple off without pay. If I get sick again this year, I will have to take off without pay and possibly be written up for it.
The big message is this strike is not about money. It is about being treated humanely. I feel like we are fighting for all of the working class, not just rail employees. It is time to stand up and say no more to corporate greed.
Locomotive Engineer and Conductor
I hired out in the late 1990’s. I’m a “railfan,” or person who loves and is a fan of all things rail related. I grew up next to the tracks. I have model railroaded my entire life. I’ve owned my own railroad equipment. This is a passion that has run deep for nearly my entire 43 years on this planet.
I’m broken when it comes to the dream I once chased. If you’re asking why, it’s really quite simple.
The Railroads that were once hospitable and understanding about it being humans that they employ no longer care about anything other than their own greed and bottom line. How does that create a broken culture? It creates this broken culture on the railroads by systematically removing every motivating factor employees and the men and women used daily.
These railroads fight tooth and nail to not honor their agreements. When the people and the railroads sit down to hash out an agreement, the very next day, their entire motivation is to try and find ways to subvert that agreement. This is being played out right now in national news on every major channel. We’ve known the problem for a long time and the public is just now having it shown to them because now it may affect them, too.
These railroads have pushed the entire workforce to a breaking point.
If I could tell the public anything about us, it is that we are very proud of the work we do, we love our jobs (even though the demands are great), and take our safety and the safety of the public very seriously. Things changed awhile back when venture capitalists took over and started to bleed the railways for profits. Also, there has been just a stunning lack of leadership, the ineptitude of management is almost criminal, many of the experienced managers who knew operations and came from crafts have retired and the carriers have hired college graduates with zero logistics or craft experience.
Engineer, Norfolk Southern
As a railroad Engineer, I'm a highly trained and professional operator of the largest land vehicle known to man. My average train in the current operating climate may be 20,000 tons and three miles long laden with hazmat [hazardous materials] and other dangerous chemicals and lading. I had ten hours rest after being on duty 12-plus hours the previous trip. I'm on call 24/7 and never know when I will get called. I don't get sick days. I spend more time in the away-from-home terminal (hotel) than I do at home. I'm constantly fatigued and sleep deprived and usually get called at all times of the night. I love my craft and I'm very good at it however, the draconian system that we work under currently is sub-human and not sustainable.
I know everyone is worried about a strike and supply chain interruptions but they are missing the bigger story.
The Carrier's arrogance is baffling. The current operating environment is untenable and a mass exodus of employees is underway. Very soon, the Carrier's will not have enough employees to operate the number of trains scheduled. I know everyone is worried about a strike and supply chain interruptions but they are missing the bigger story. The railroads have not changed with the times and cannot hire qualified employees. Their reputations precede them. Railroads handle 30% of the nation's freight. The inability of the railroads to hire and retain qualified employees will have a greater long term impact on the supply chain. It's a crisis that the railroads and the politicians refuse to recognize.
The real crisis is looming. The strike is temporary…
I’d like people to know that I genuinely enjoy my job and the people I work with. Many of them I have a bond with as strong as family. It’s no wonder my brothers and sisters have started finding new jobs and giving up hope. This strike isn’t what the railroads should be worried about, it’s the loss of their best and hardworking employees. We work all night, on camera, with no radio, no phone, and can work up to 12 hours straight. We work hard for this company. All we are asking for is a little respect.
I've noticed one thing that the media is getting wrong is that we're not asking for paid sick days. We're asking not to be punished for taking time off for being sick or taking time off to tend to sick family members or actually be able to make doctor appointments. I've had issues not too long ago with my heart that I was docked points for not going to work to deal with my afib [“An irregular, often rapid heart rate that commonly causes poor blood flow.”]. And docked points when we had to call 911 for my son because of breathing issues and spent all day in the hospital with him and not able to go to work.
I've been here for 28 years and the way they treat us has really made me depressed to the point I can't wait to retire because this job is taking its toll on my health and on my family.
A typical answer you will receive from a fellow railroad worker at work when you ask "how are you doing?" is "I'm living the dream."
An answer dripping with irony. Workers deal with the stress of the job with cynicism, but with an acceptance that their families depend on their labor to have a better standard of living. Waiting for Godot—I can't go on, I must go on because people depend on me. So you smile and say you are living the dream.
This was caused by the railroad companies, but workers will likely take the brunt of the blame for wanting to be treated like human beings and not robots.
The American people need to know that rail laborers are tough and hardened and want to do their jobs for the country, but the Class I's [the seven largest railroad companies in North America] will not allow sick time without possible punishment. This is what Americans need to know. This was caused by the railroad companies, but workers will likely take the brunt of the blame for wanting to be treated like human beings and not robots.
Workers now are expected by the Class I Railroads to work longer, harder and with less ability to manage their schedules. Despite the challenges of the job, rail workers across the country work dutifully to move the freight that keeps America running. The Class I's and their major stock holders have made billions while expecting the workers who get their hands dirty to magically fill the production void they created by their job reductions. Workers feel that they have no choice to be heard but to strike and this is all over a few unpaid sick days a year for workers. It is an absurdity of capitalism that this is even happening in 2022.
Wife of Engineer, BNSF
Watching my beloved husband carry the burden of this job is heartbreaking. My husband at this time has already used all his vacation days for things like making sure I have a ride home from the hospital after surgery from ACL repair, or making sure my daughter gets his presence at one of her volleyball games. He must use his vacation days to go to any appointments from dental, to doctors, to an eye exam. The carriers have given no room for a family and the responsibilities that come with it or for anyone who is looking to build a life outside of work or develop any semblance of a happy, healthy life.
I want people to know that this job is a skilled craft, it takes years for these men and women to become capable and confident at what they do, we trust them to drive through the heart of all of our towns across America, to bring our goods to the table, to make sure that we have gas at a gas stations, that the chlorine gets to the water treatment plants so we have clean water--and all they’re asking for is some sick leave and a schedule that doesn’t leave them feeling like they’ve abandoned all their other responsibilities in life.
The thing I would like the public to know is: we, the railroad Union employees, are your neighbors. We are currently having an issue with our hedge fund billionaire bosses and we need a little help right now, or at least a little understanding and compassion.
I'm a conductor, a veteran, a father of two kids; Die Hard is a Christmas movie, Micheal Jordan is the greatest to ever play basketball, Michael Keaton was the best Batman, and if you have a flat tire, I'll stop and give you a hand…or you can side with the billionaires.
Brakeman, Union Pacific
I’m a divorced father of two, so when I need to miss work because of a child’s appointment or sickness it’s a very big deal for me. The points based attendance policies work to where an employee with near impeccable attendance could find themselves in an investigation quite quickly if they were to encounter some bad luck or sickness.
At one point this year I worked 11 weeks without a day off.
Myself and fellow employees are simply burned out. I have been with the railroad for nearly 10 years and have witnessed more injuries and incidents in the past two years than I have my entire time here.
Locomotive Engineer, BNSF
I average 110 hours a week away from home. I have no scheduled days off at all. I'm on call 24/7 and work all hours of the day and night while BNSF makes me watch training every two years on sleeping well and eating healthy while they do everything they can to prevent that. It plays hell on our health and we constantly have to miss and reschedule doctors appointments. We miss out on our kids programs and sporting events. We can't volunteer to coach Little League or be a part of PTA. At one point this year I worked 11 weeks without a day off.
Wife of Engineer, BNSF
The week before BNSF adopted Hi-Viz, I tested positive for Covid. On January 31st, our youngest tested positive, at school. The 31st was the first day that I was able to return to work. My husband happened to be home that morning so he took our daughter home and I tried to get some work done before he ended up being called for work. We discussed what we should do and ultimately decided that I needed to be the one to take time off because if he had stayed with our child Monday through Friday, so that I could return to work, he would have used all 30 of his points plus 5 of the 15 points that are given to employees after the first time they reach 0. At an employee town hall, prior to the implementation of Hi-Viz, a BNSF exec told those watching that they needed to save points for emergencies. How do people plan for emergencies? He had to choose between sharing in the care of our daughter or having points in the event of an emergency.
Pay is important, health care is important, but Class I railroads are refusing to negotiate quality of life and work conditions that would help to hire and retain employees. The things that used to make up for this on-call lifestyle haven't kept up and policies that were acceptable have changed. My husband enjoys his job, but at what point is it not worth it? That's something we have been discussing on a regular basis since the implementation of Hi-Viz and the lack of the willingness that the carriers have to negotiate issues that union members have deemed important.
I can be crushed or killed any given night with a wrong step. Sounds dramatic but that’s the business. Walk into a hazardous leak unknowingly. Lost a few coworkers over the years unfortunately. On the PEB record we as a work group have been told we contribute nothing to profits. Kind of interesting considering they are trying to move Congress expeditiously because of how important we are to apparently everyone and everything.
Conductor, Union Pacific
I would like the general public to know that after working for 15 years I only get 30 days off each year. Every other day of the year if I'm not physically working I am subject to call and feel like a prisoner at times. As it is now this job consumes your life, what we want is fair treatment and an improved quality of life.