By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
Congress may have ended the railroad strike, but legislators aren’t getting the last word.
Rail workers remain unhappy with the deal and gathered in rallies across the nation to highlight their continued concerns with sick leave, and other outstanding quality of life and safety issues.
In Wyoming, the rally was at the state Capitol in Cheyenne.
The biggest sticking point remains sick days, which, rail workers told Cowboy State Daily, are still dependent on using personal days, or unpaid time off, which can lead to attendance demerits.
“The personal days are not available when you want to use them,” former railroad worker and Wyoming lawmaker Stan Blake told Cowboy State Daily. “The personal days are available when you want to use them and it coincides with the railroad letting you use them. So they can deny it.
“If it’s something really important, then you lay off sick and then you get dinged on your attendance policy. Eventually they can fire you if you get so many bad days. So that’s what the big beef is about.”
The new contract Congress imposed on rail workers did include three unpaid days for sick leave, Blake noted.
“But it was to go see a doctor between Tuesday and Thursday,” he added.
Respect And Quality Of Life
The new contract approved by Congress includes a 24 percent pay increase over five years from 2020 through 2024, as well as an extra paid day off and $5,000 in performance bonuses, with total average annual pay and benefits reaching $160,000 by the end of the contract period.
Executive Director of Wyoming AFL-CIO Tammy Johnson acknowledged the pay increase and bonuses, but said respect for workers and their safety is the real issue.
“The seven days of sick leave that they were hoping to get is the bare minimum that any worker should get, let alone workers who work in the kind of conditions that we ask rail workers to work in,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “Congress just didn’t think it was worth it to help them.”
Johnson said the cost to companies to allow paid sick time would not actually take much from their profits.
“I saw an article today that said it would be, the ask on the seven days, would be 2 percent of the profit that (railroad companies) make annually,” Johnson said. “Two percent of that profit that’s above what it costs to run the railroads. Two percent of that could go to railroad workers, so they have time to take their kids to the doctor, or take themselves to the doctor, or take time off, without losing pay. And Congress didn’t think that they had to do that.”
“As we close out this long, challenging process, none of the parties achieved everything they advocated for,” Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ian Jefferies said in a media release. “The product of these agreements is a compromise by nature, but the result is one of substantial gains for rail employees. More broadly, all rail stakeholders and the economy writ large now have certainty about the path forward.”
The gains in the agreement, while not meeting all demands, are still significant, he added, “Including historic wage increases, best-in-class healthcare, and meaningful progress in creating more predictable, scheduled workshifts. Without a doubt, there is more to be done to further address our employees’ work-life balance concerns, but it is clear this agreement maintains rail’s place among the best jobs in our nation.”
Long Trains Create Safety Issues
Sick days aren’t the only issue bothering rail workers.
“The trains are too long,” Johnson said. “They’re understaffed, and they are a risk, they create a risk to communities by blocking rail crossings and intersections, by breaking down out in the middle of nowhere, leaving the small crew stranded in pretty bad weather.”
Johnson said Wyoming railroad workers plan to ask Gov. Mark Gordon and the Legislature to help remedy the issues with long trains.
Fixing that is a safety issue, Johnson said, that plays into maintaining adequate workforce, particularly in Wyoming where labor statistics show three jobs for every job applicant.
“If these jobs become too undesirable, then we won’t have people who work on the railroad, and then we’ll really be in a world of hurt,” she said. “If you make the job so bad that nobody wants it, then there won’t be anyone to do the job.”
Wyoming exports several commodities on rail cars, ranging from oil, coal, and trona, to grains and other agricultural goods.
“It’s time for the Wyoming Legislature to protect these workers who do the work of getting those products to the places they need to go, so our economy can keep going,” Johnson said. “So, we’re going to see if we can propose some legislation that will help with that, help limit the length of trains to help prevent rail crossings from being blocked so our communities are safer, and, you know, continue to keep these jobs as jobs that people want to have.”
Congress Kicked The Can Down The Road
Johnson was particularly critical of Congress for stepping into the negotiations between railroad companies and workers.
“They took the power away from the workers,” she said. “They stepped in and said, we’ll tell you what’s going to be in your contract. That’s not the way negotiated agreement works.”
She was critical of Wyoming Senators John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis, both of whom voted no on a separate resolution that would have provided seven days of paid sick leave for rail workers instead of one.
That vote failed 221 to 207 in the House, and by 52 to 43 in the Senate.
“Why did they interfere? Why didn’t they support the rail workers when the negotiations came down to something, when it became an act of Congress?” she asked. “Why did they side with rail companies and their profits instead of the workers and their quality of life — Wyoming workers and their quality of life?”
Cowboy State Daily asked both Barrasso and Lummis about their vote on the paid sick leave resolution.
Barrasso said in a statement that it was necessary for Congress to step in and end the strike.
“A nationwide rail strike threatened to send shockwaves through the economy and our supply chains,” the statement read.
“Wyoming depends heavily on the railroad industry and its employees to transport energy, food, and goods across the country. The impact of a rail strike would have been dramatic and cost the economy $2 billion a day. It would have crippled supply chains and emptied the shelves in stores. With inflation at an all-time high, a strike would have only added to the problems and price pressures that we are still facing under the Biden administration.”
Lummis had not yet responded by the time this story was originally published.
Johnson told Cowboy State Daily her organization will continue to keep the issues that concern rail workers at the forefront of the public’s mind.
“We’re still fighting for changes that are humane, and that allow people to have a quality of life that we expect people in America to have,” she said. “Corporate wealth continues to balloon, but workers are the ones responsible for creating wealth for these companies, these mega millionaires, billionaires. All they want (in return) is a little respect and decency.”