Jay Seegmiller: Railroad working conditions affect everyone, not just railroad employees

(Alex Welsh | The New York Times) A freight train yard near the Port of Los Angeles, Sept. 15, 2022. To defuse a labor dispute that brought the nation to the brink of a potentially catastrophic railroad strike, negotiators had to resolve a key issue: schedules that workers say were punishing, upending their personal lives and driving colleagues from the industry.

The potential national railroad strike was temporarily averted while a tentative agreement was reviewed and voted on, but the proposed agreements have been rejected by a majority of the railroad workers.

This should be of concern to everyone. If you care about your family, your friends and your country, you should care about what is going on with our nation’s railroads.

Railroad workers have been working without a contract for more than three years. Other industries would have gone on strike, or been locked out by the company, the minute the contract expired, but railroads are by law not allowed to seek “self-help” immediately because of their importance to our country’s economy.

The main reason for the impasse is not about pay. It is due to recently enacted attendance policies that have made it very difficult for railroad workers to even go to the doctor or dentist. Railroad work has always been difficult on workers and their families. Railroad workers are on call 24 hours a day 7 days a week with less than two-hours’ notice to show up for work.

If a railroad employee makes a doctor or dentist appointment, odds are great they will be out of town, or riding on a train when the appointment arrives. The appointment must be cancelled, and often they must pay for the appointment missed and then rescheduled. It could be months before they can get back in for another appointment. In the past, employees could miss work (without pay) to make the appointment costing the employee hundreds of dollars (about half a week’s pay).

Ask any male railroad employee if he was present at the birth of all his children? Most will say no. This also applies to school graduations, plays or sports their children are in, also birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas mornings, you name the family event, railroad workers miss most of them.

Until recently, railroaders could take time off, without pay, to attend some of these events. Now they can’t without getting fired. Recently, a BNSF engineer named Aaron Hiles told his wife he wasn’t feeling right and made an appointment to go to the doctor but the railroad called him to work, and taking the time off to see the doctor could cost him his job so he canceled the appointment, he died a couple weeks later of a heart attack on a train. You can find the details online.

Because of this toxic work environment, poor working conditions and wages not keeping up with inflation, railroad workers in recent years have been leaving the industry in record numbers. Railroads are also finding it very difficult to hire employees for the same reason.

All this time railroads have enjoyed record profits every quarter. It is not the workers that are the problem, it is the greedy railroads. Railroad workers make sacrifices daily. They were there on the job all through the pandemic (no working from home) moving the nation’s goods across the country.

These greedy railroads are not only treating their employees poorly, but also shippers, affecting everyone in this country. This has not gone unnoticed by Congress and the Surface Transportation Board, which held several days of hearings in April of this year that you can watch on YouTube. There are many contributors to our country’s current supply chain issues and inflation, but a significant contributor is our nation’s railroads’ greed and poor management.

Additionally, the state of Utah has recently recognized that railroads have put profits before safety. On November 16 the Utah Legislature’s Transportation Interim Committee passed out a bill for consideration in the 2023 general session of the Legislature that would establish a Utah Office of Rail Safety. This hearing is also available online at the Utah Legislature website.

Everyone should be concerned about what is going on with our nation’s railroads. It affects everyone, not just railroad employees. We all need to stand by our hard-working railroad employees. Please let Sens. Lee and Romney, and your congressional representative, know that you support railroad workers.

Jay Seegmiller

Jay Seegmiller is a retired railroad conductor who worked in railroading for 45 years. He also served as Utah legislative director for SMART-TD, the largest rail union, and is a former member of the Utah Legislature.