‘This isn’t about money.’ Why rail workers in KC, U.S. are pushing for national strike

Like generations before him, Nathan Jamerson’s family ties brought him into the railroad business.

A yard conductor for BNSF in Kansas City, he has never questioned his career choice — until the last year or so when his railroad, like others, implemented major changes to employee schedules amid widespread job cuts.

Those are two of the major forces that have pushed many railroad employees toward a national rail strike, and Congress and the White House toward action to avoid one. House and Senate leaders met with President Joe Biden on Tuesday and promised swift action to pass legislation avoiding a strike just before the holidays. It’s estimated a strike could cost the national economy $2 billion per day.

For months, more than 100,000 rail employees have been on the verge of walking off the job.

A proposed five-year contract would give workers $5,000 bonuses and wage increases of 24% — the largest raise in four decades, railroads say. While healthcare costs would increase for workers, average railroad pay would increase to $110,000 by 2024.

But with only one additional paid leave day per year, many workers were unimpressed with the offer that failed to address key quality of life concerns.

“This isn’t about money,” said Jamerson, 42, who is raising two children with his wife in the Northland.

The ongoing dispute leaves members of Congress to choose between protecting the national economy and siding with railroad workers. The House passed legislation Wednesday that would force the two sides to accept the White House-brokered tentative agreement by a 290-137 margin. Most members of the Kansas and Missouri delegations voted yes, with only Missouri Republican Reps. Billy Long, Blaine Luetkemeyer and Jason Smith voting no.

The legislation is now headed for the Senate.

Rep. Sam Graves, R-Missouri, said a rail strike would devastate the supply chain and “literally shut down the country” during the busy holiday season.

“The terms of the tentative agreement found in this resolution are more than fair to railway workers,” he said on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, who serves on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, told The Star he was hoping Congress would be able to avoid taking action at all. Instead, he wants the unions and the railroads to resolve the matter themselves.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, said he believes there is broad agreement that Congress should mandate a contract settlement on railroad workers.

“The president has asked the Congress to initiate the language to settle this and I’ll be supporting that,” Blunt said Tuesday in Washington.

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley has argued that the GOP, after its disappointing performance in the midterm elections, must focus more on working class Americans. On Wednesday, he said he won’t support legislation that goes against the will of workers.

“Listen, we’ve got thousands of these workers in Missouri. And these folks voted not to accept this agreement. And I don’t know why the Federal government would come ram this down their throat without them having any further say in it.”

A railroad worker walks on a locomotive engine last month at the BNSF Railway Argentine Yard in Kansas City, Kansas.
A railroad worker walks on a locomotive engine last month at the BNSF Railway Argentine Yard in Kansas City, Kansas.

The Kansas City area is home to five of the continent’s seven major railroads. More tonnage moves over rails in Kansas City than any place in the country and rail car traffic here is second behind only Chicago.

Jamerson has worked for railroads since 1999. His current job in local BNSF yards gives him a much more predictable schedule than over-the-road conductors and engineers. But he noted that traveling crews are afforded as little as one day off per month under current attendance policies.

“It is not acceptable that anybody in this country should have one day off a month,” he said. “We have guys who work on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A lot of other folks in this country have two days off a week.”

Employees across the country told The Star they have been pushed to the edge by sweeping changes implemented by their carriers who, despite record profits, have undertaken years of cost cutting measures in their quest to increase profits even more.

Railroads have shed tens of thousands of workers. And they’ve adopted new business models that make the schedule more demanding while also implementing stricter attendance policies that make time off even harder to come by.

“If you’re not there to see your kids grow up, what good is all the money in the world?” Jamerson said.

The job has always involved trade-offs: the work can be dangerous, the hours can be long and unpredictable and many rail crews spend as much time on the road as they do at home. In exchange, railroads rewarded workers with one of the most prized blue-collar jobs in America, offering high pay, insurance and retirement benefits.

But the grand bargain of railroading is being tested like never before.

“It’s do or die for the future of this job,” said one BNSF engineer based in Kansas City. “I don’t know if I’ll retire at the railroad, but at least for the guys who are here now, we need to do something to make it better.”

A Canadian Pacific locomotive sits in the rail yard in the East Bottoms last month in Kansas City.
A Canadian Pacific locomotive sits in the rail yard in the East Bottoms last month in Kansas City.

Deep cuts in the workforce have burdened employees with more work and even less predictable schedules. Some have seen their paychecks shrink as railroads cut train traffic.

At the same time, the growing tension comes as the nation’s seven largest railroads enjoy record profits. They have rewarded shareholders with billions in dividends and stock buybacks.

The American Association of Railroads, which represents the nation’s large freight railroads, has called on Congress to mandate a contract onto workers. The association noted that eight of 12 rail labor unions approved the contract deal struck in Washington. And the group notes that railroaders enjoy some of the nation’s highest wages and best benefits.

“As in any good compromise, neither side got everything it wanted,” reads a fact sheet on the association’s website.

But those companies have discounted the role of the thousands of men and women who move their trains at all hours of the day and night.

“The carriers maintain that capital investment and risk are the reasons for their profits, not any contributions by labor,” a nonpartisan board tapped to break the labor-management stalemate wrote to Biden in August.

That only heightened tensions with railroaders.

“It’s worse than ever before. There’s always been kind of tense management-union relations,” said Peter Swan, a former railroader and associate professor of logistics at Penn State Harrisburg. “But over time, the salary advantage that the railroads have had versus other industries has shrunk. And the time demands or the ability of people to control their lives has decreased.”

An ‘abusive’ attendance policy

Early this year, BNSF for the first time in two decades made substantial changes to its attendance policies. It rolled out a new points-based system that made it even harder for employees to schedule time off and can punish workers who need impromptu time off for illness or family emergencies.

The railroad’s system allots workers 30 points each. Every time they take off, they lose points — more points for taking off more in-demand days like weekends. They can earn points with good attendance and working days that are harder to staff. But employees who deplete their allotment of points can face discipline, including termination.

BNSF, owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, led all the big North American railroads last year with total revenues in excess of $23 billion. With widespread backlash to the new attendance system, executives announced some changes that afford employees more leniency regarding which events cause them to lose points and allow them to earn more total points for working certain shifts.

“It’s important to take time for yourself and use points when needed,” Matt Garland, the company’s vice president of transportation, told workers in a YouTube video announcing the changes that took effect in June.

But the unions say the policy is still too punitive.

Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, called the company’s attendance policy an “abject failure” earlier this year.

“Not only is the supply chain failing, but this abusive and punitive attendance policy is breaking apart families and causing locomotive engineers and other railroaders to come to work dangerously fatigued,” he said in a media statement.

“This unreasonable policy, which keeps locomotive engineers and other railroaders on call day after day, around the clock, has caused hundreds of BNSF’s employees to quit and it has made recruitment of new employees a nightmare.”

After significantly cutting their workforces, other railroads have implemented similar attendance policies. Previously employees were allowed to mark off certain days with no punishment so long as they were available for enough other shifts. But staffing is too thin to accommodate that anymore.

“They are worked to the bone,” said Ty Dragoo, the Kansas legislative director for the SMART Transportation Division union. “The railroads simply do not have enough people or equipment to efficiently run today’s freight.”

That leaves the 2,000 railroad employees he represents in Kansas to work 60, 70 or even 80 hours per week. Things are so restrictive that some workers have been disciplined for attending their own relative’s funerals, Dragoo said.

“It’s just insane,” Dragoo said. “It’s the railroads’ last grasp to try to get as many people working as possible because they have made the mistake of cutting so deep.”

Workers blame new system

In the last few years, executives at America’s Class I railroads have scoured every inch of their businesses looking to reduce expenses in a longstanding quest to boost profitability.

Those measures have significantly thinned the ranks of employees — the Class I operators have reduced employment by 30 percent since 2015, according to SMART Transportation Division, which is North America’s largest railroad union.

Workers largely blame Precision Scheduled Railroading. While PSR has been interpreted in various ways, the basic tenets are simple: reduce the amount of time cars sit idle in yards, reduce costs and improve overall efficiency of the railroad.

While those concepts may not sound drastic, railroad workers say their employers have implemented them to the extreme.

In testimony to federal regulators this year, Oregon locomotive engineer Kyle Haines said PSR is accelerating employee attrition, degrading productivity and increasing the likelihood of accidents.

“Precision Scheduled Railroading is just the latest craze in a long line of destruction caused by Wall Street greed at the expense of hard working employees, the public and the shippers,” Haines wrote to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board in April.

“Something needs to be done or we will continue to see corporate greed destroy a once great job,” wrote Joseph Smith, another engineer.

Railroad executives have conceded that they face major problems with staffing, but they say their new business model is not to blame.

Jim Foote, the former chief executive of CSX Transportation who retired in September, told Midwest shippers this summer that problems moving freight should be blamed on crew shortages. And he acknowledged that previous decisions to trim the workforce were shortsighted.

“If I had the decision to make over again … we would have never laid off an employee,” Foote said, according to an account in Trains magazine. “Never. But there was no vision of the future, there was no idea what we expected to encounter.”

Even after hiring 2,000 more employees by this summer, the CSX workforce was shrinking, not growing.

“Half of them, in the first six months, quit,” Foote said, “many of them in the early days of when they’re actually called to go to work on a regular assignment, or for the first time when they realize they’re going to have to work on a weekend or a holiday, or on their kid’s birthday.”

Canadian Pacific CEO Keith Creel also acknowledged the change at a global transportation conference in May.

For generations, railroading was viewed as a job for life. Layoffs and furloughs thinned the ranks during lean times, but those workers were generally picked back up in better times.

“Well, what’s happened is the world’s changed,” Creel said. “And when it went down and they assumed it would come back, those people aren’t there anymore. They’re working in other places or they’re not working at all.”

The Star’s Daniel Desrochers contributed to this story.