After a rail strike is averted, a union leader says it may force railroads to be better employers

To Congress intervened last week to avert a nationwide rail strikea local rail union leader said the agreement was mainly good for railroads, with some potentially positive things for railroad workers rejected an agreement brokered by the Biden administrationand cited the lack of paid sick days as the main reason.

“When they said we couldn’t strike [Congress], it was almost a gift to the hauliers,” Kevin Knutson, a BNSF union leader in Gillette. “The haulers are the Class I railways and stuff and they’re like, ‘Okay, we tried to make it a better deal, the union voted against, now we can’t let them go on strike – it’s just not good for them Business. So, Mr. Railroad, you must improve.’”

That Railway Labor Act, passed in 1926, governs labor relations only in railroads and airlines. Because of this, Congress was able to impose the contracts on the four railroad unions that had rejected the terms of the Biden administration’s agreement. In the last 96 years Congress has intervened in railroad labor negotiations 18 timeseach time to prevent a strike.

The seven Class I railways have come under fire Attendance Policy which workers and unions have harshly criticized as draconian. Knutson said that while congressional intervention avoids a strike, it also sends a signal to railroads that they need to be better employers.

“[Congress said] We give you this gift but you need to improve because the railroads have done an incredibly nice job of making money for their owners and their shareholders but they have really failed in the service they provide to their freight forwarders and their customers for quite some time,” said Knutson. “And of course they failed to take a little better care of their employees in the process, so they’re under pressure now.”

Knutson said he doesn’t think a strike is ever a real possibility.

“To be honest, we never wanted to go on strike,” he said. “This government, even if it was pro-union and pro-worker, still didn’t want us to go on strike. It was just positioning yourself to get to that point and try to do something a little bit better for ourselves. But when they couldn’t, they’re basically telling the companies or railroads that not only do you need to improve your relationships with your employees, you need to improve your relationships with your carriers and everything else.”

One of the factors that Knutson says could lead to better conditions for Wyoming workers is the projected increase in coal shipments next year due to high natural gas prices. In addition, some railway shareholders are urging railway companies to do the same Adopt proposals to provide workers with paid sick leave.

“I’ve heard rumors from Fort Worth [Texas] persons [where the headquarters of BNSF are located and] I know that relationships will change after the first year and maybe we’ll see some good things,” Knutson said. “A lot of things that are in the national agreement, a lot of things that we want are not what the railroads wanted and here’s why: if you and the national agreement are set in stone, different railroads can come to some agreement of these might not do the stuff we want, and that’s the good thing about their fare team, the National Support Conference [Committee]they can bargain and may only get general wage increases and changes [in] Insurance.”

The impact of losing staff and operating railroads with fewer staff is a key reason why Class I railroads have adopted stricter attendance policies. While Knutson said the number of employees leaving or having left the railroads is slowing, it’s still an issue they’re grappling with.

“After the first year, all these Class I railroads are going to do a lot because they have to get a lot of people, [and] You’re losing people,” he said. “We will raise coal from the [Powder River] Basins, if they can, by 20 to 30 percent next year, because everybody needs coal, so to get to that point, they have to keep some of the people that they have and they have to hire some of the people, they have to do it a lot better than is generally known today about working conditions on the railways.”

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