Working-Class Voices: First Person Accounts of Life and Work

Corporate Railroading in the Twenty-First Century: A Train Conductor’s Life

Editor’s Note
For this article, New Labor Forum’s “Working-Class Voices” columnist Kressent Pottenger interviewed Nick Wurst, a freight train conductor for CSX. Wurst is a member of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, and active in Railroad Workers United. The interview took place a month and a half before the February 3, 2023, train derailment that released toxic chemicals into East Palestine, a small town of 4,700 in Ohio’s Columbiana County. The disaster, which could potentially affect the health of an entire community, is under investigation as we go to press.

I started working for the railroad in 2019. For three years now, I have been a freight train conductor, working for the carrier CSX, out of Worcester, Massachusetts. I am a member of  SMART TD, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, which is one of several unions in the railway industry, like BMWED (Brotherhood of Maintenance Way Employees) or BLET (Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen). Rail is a heavily federally regulated industry, with freight divided up into different classes (bigger vs. smaller). The seven biggest freight railroads in the United States are designated as Class I. My carrier, CSX, is one of them. Class 1 carriers are massive corporations with hundreds of millions to billions in profit margins per quarter. BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe), for example, is owned by Warren Buffett.

For almost three years, I was on an intermodal ramp, where everything that comes into the country or gets trucked across the country in shipping containers and trailers is moved. We operate cranes and semi-tractors known as hostler trucks. You name it, we move it—from UPS and Amazon packages to raw materials, plastics, and lumber. We move hazardous materials such as ethanol, propane, construction waste, chemicals used for purifying water, contaminated dirt, and asbestos. We even take radioactive material out of containers. The carriers supply PPE (personal protective equipment). There are some requirements, including protections for your eyes and ears and what kind of boots you wear. There are  also requirements about high-visibility clothing. New hires—people with less than a year—have to wear orange vests. The company is supposed to provide gloves. But, if you want any quality equipment, you pay out-of-pocket.

A freight train conductor has to be certified by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). So, you need training. There used to be lots of private railroad schools, where you paid your own way. Nowadays, most of the major railroads have their own training facilities and programs that pay you while you train. I did four weeks of training at the CSX REDI center in Atlanta, GA. I did two to three months of on-the-job training back home in the territory that I was actually going to be working in. Right now, I “own” a job, meaning that I am the regular crew for it. Five days out of the week, I work it. Same start time always. A lot of times I work off of what is called the extra board—people who are on call six days of the week. You try to look at all the jobs in your area. You try to plan your day and sleep schedule around that. I report to the rail yard office, and we talk about how to get an in-coming train together and out of the yard. We make sure we are clear on what we are doing when we get to different points along the way. We get driven out to our engine. A train comes in, en route to its final destination. Our job is to get that train ready to go on to the next stop. We have to put specific engines on it that are equipped for specific railroad territory. Train engines are pneumatic; they have massive air compressors that pump air through the rest of the train to apply or release the brakes. We have to put air into all the brakes on the cars and on the engines that are air-based. If the air disconnects at any point or pulls apart, then everything goes into what we call an emergency. All the air gets dumped out; emergency brakes are applied. We have to start over. It can take hours before we’re finally ready to move that train. Safety is number one. [Editor’s note: The prophetic nature of this comment is underscored by the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, one of the worst rail disasters in U.S. history.] So, before the train goes, we are required to list all the cars with hazardous materials and say where they are in the train. If I am audited by the FRA, and they ask to see my hazmat paperwork,  and it is not up to date or correct, that is a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) certifiable offense.

For most of the twentieth century, train crews were a minimum of five: a conductor and engineer, a fireman, a switchman, and a brakeman. Nowadays, it’s down to two—in some places, only one, a remote-control operator who does the work of both a conductor and an engineer by having a remote-control box on their chest. My crew is just me and my engineer. Ten years ago, there would have been more brakemen working with me. Back in the day, the division of labor was the conductor mainly handling paperwork, running the job, and communicating with dispatchers. Brakemen and switchmen were doing more of the work on the ground. Now that’s all been rolled into the conductor job. During the pandemic, the staffing problem became even worse. Managers did not like wearing masks or practicing social distancing in their own offices; so many people were actively flaunting mask requirements. When there was a crackdown on Covid  policies, managers never said let’s have a meeting and talk about why the pandemic is serious. You were on your own. You had to choose between wearing your eye protection versus pulling your mask down so your safety glasses didn’t fog up. There were Covid outbreaks at terminals that would take out entire crew rosters.

You name it, we move it—from UPS and Amazon packages to . . . hazardous materials . . . We even take radioactive material out of containers.

After a year on the job, we get company insurance as well as vision and dental. You get points for attendance. Points are deducted if you are sick. The deduction is greater if you didn’t provide any supporting evidence. Eventually they equal discipline, up to and including potential firing. You get a handful of personal days called demand days. Our biggest problem is time off. The benefits package includes vacation days or paid time off. Based on your years of seniority, you get a certain number of weeks of vacation a year. But we have a hard time using our benefits. A coworker on the job for around twenty years just had his first year of getting five weeks of vacation. The problem is the ability to use days or call out on short notice. There is no justifiable health-related absenteeism, except for serious medical leave like what’s covered in FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act). There’s a bidding system for vacations at the start of the year. It is limited to your personal days, which you are supposed to schedule twenty-four hours in advance. The carriers have the ability to cancel everybody’s days off. They send out notices for a subdivision or region: due to everything being understaffed, time off is canceled between certain days. Even when you go through all the hoops, it is not guaranteed. We do not have weekends. Say I have Tuesday off. They could call me up till 10:00 p.m. on Monday night, and then work me for twelve hours. I could be working for most of my day off, and then be back at it. There are federal regulations that say you are guaranteed forty-eight hours of uninterrupted rest. The way you get forty-eight hours off is by working six consecutive starts. Six starts that happen within twenty-four hours of the end of your last shift. This is all part of Precision Scheduled Railroad (PSR), an overarching strategy that most major railroads have adopted of deskilling and cutting everything to the bone. The attendance policies are one aspect of the PSR approach. It is corporate railroading for the twenty-first century. The goal is to minimize costs.

Precision Scheduled Railroad [is] an overarching strategy that most major railroads have adopted of deskilling and cutting everything to the bone . . . It is corporate railroading for the twenty-first century.

Railroad workers operate under the federal Railway Labor Act (RLA), which also governs airline workers. Under the RLA, contracts do not expire the way they do in other industries; they are updated. To start the process of updating the agreement, either side serves what is called a Section Six notice, which says they want to start negotiating over a new agreement. In contract negotiations, if they reach an impasse, either side can declare that. At that point, they can ask for binding arbitration or the National Mediation Board gets involved. That is the first time that the federal government gets involved. Legally speaking, there is nothing the unions can do job-action wise, to try and put pressure on this whole process.

The companies were stalling since 2019. The notices that were served—where both sides said, here’s what we’re going in and asking for—it was miles apart. The companies were stonewalling. The only negotiating updates we were getting from our union leadership were posts saying the companies are not bringing forward anything worth negotiating over, which was deeply unsatisfying because, what can we do to pressure them to start negotiating? The other factor is the unions buy into the RLA because the federal government has such an immense amount of power over that. During the Trump years, the unions were not interested in pushing things forward because they assumed that we would get something really bad if it got to the point where the Trump government had to intervene. We were told we have to wait for a pro-labor Democratic administration to try to get what we need. We got told for three years: the pandemic, the lack of cost-of-living increase, the inflation, wait for a Democratic administration. Then, when Biden gets elected, we are told we cannot fight because there is a Democratic administration in office, and we do not want to endanger their majority. This is the same administration that has said outright that it will act to prevent a strike if needed. The president created the Presidential Emergency Board that had made its recommendations which the union said they were disappointed in.

But the emergency board “split the difference” between what the unions were asking for and what the companies were asking for. It was a massive victory for the companies. Negotiations kept going to see if they could get tentative agreements, union-by-union. Many of the smaller unions agreed to tentative agreements. But, if something better is agreed on by another union, their agreements would be updated to reflect that. This kind of bargaining removes any need for one union to stand tall with the others.

The concerns going into the contract fight were quality-of-life issues. We wanted improvements on scheduling, paid time off, and sick time. We want to not have our entire existence be at the beck and call of the railroads. For most of these extra board and road jobs, you are on call all the time. Even when you are not working, you are not free to do whatever you want. You come home, shower, and go to sleep because you might get called in ten hours. You cannot relax, because you don’t know if you are gonna go back to work or not. Corporate railroading in general has destroyed railroaders’ quality of life.

It feels really disgusting to hear the railroads saying . . . workers can make $120,000 a year or more. A lot of us would willingly make less if that meant we worked less.

It feels really disgusting to hear the railroads saying, well, you know, railroad workers can make $120,000 a year or more. A lot of us would willingly make less if that meant we worked less. It feels like someone is forcing you to run at gunpoint. Then they turn around and brag about how long you can run for. As the tentative agreement and the presidential recommendations started to come out, key issues solidified in terms of the contract. The last pay increase we had before this agreement went into effect in July 2019. The pay increase of 22 percent was backdated to 2020. The first wage increase of 3 percent in the new agreement is backdated to go into effect July 1, 2020; the second of 3.5 percent in 2021; the third of 7 percent in 2022; 4 percent in 2023; and 4.5 percent in 2024. That’s covering many hours that people have already worked. There are concerns: are they going to correctly calculate my overtime, penalty claims, and vacation payouts for the last five years? This year, inflation went as high as 9 percent. Is it really a pay increase or is it less of a pay cut? Our health care premiums are going to almost double by 2025. That is going to eat into that pay raise. Nothing was given on sick time. You can schedule to not be working due to a medical appointment and not be penalized, but you will not be paid either. And a medical appointment has to be scheduled thirty days in advance. There is nothing like on-demand sick time. There is nothing you can do about that without being penalized.

Older workers are retiring or leaving because the bullshit is not worth it anymore. You used to put up with it because railroading, and building trades, are where you go to have a good paying job without a college degree. Now you are not making much more than any number of other jobs that require a whole lot less bullshit, and heartache. We cannot retain new recruits because conditions are so bad. There is potential for an added mass exodus now that people are getting their back pay. That means the companies are throwing newer hires who didn’t have the years as a brakeman into conductor jobs because they have to. There are derailments, accidents, it is costing money, and time. There are three flavors of railroaders right now: people who do not see any way for it to change. They have an attitude of, we suffer, it sucks. But it is what we do. There are people fed up, and ready to leave. Then there are people who are angry and willing to fight. That section of railroaders is growing.

Railroad labor has been isolated from the rest of the labor movement [with] its own world of small craft unions and . . . under its own labor law. Most railroad workers have no idea what an active labor movement looks like . . .

There are opportunities for public engagement and support: proposed rulemaking. Members of the public are able to submit comments to FRA on proposed regulations: why two-person crews are necessary for safety and to protect jobs. The other is trying to pay attention to the industry. We can support organizations like our RWU (Railroad Workers United). RWU is an organization dedicated to reclaiming our unions and transforming them into real fighting organizations based on solidarity, rank-and-file power, and democracy. There are ways to financially support the organization or by signing on to endorse resolutions. I think the most important thing is for it to come from the labor movement.

Railroad labor has been isolated from the rest of the labor movement. It has its own world of small craft unions and is under its own labor law. Most railroad workers have no idea what an active labor movement looks like with rallies, pickets, standouts, and public meetings; these things are totally new to a lot of us. The last time there was a strike was 1992. I was not even alive. Most railroad workers weren’t even working through that. The labor movement has a role it can play from the outside, demonstrating what the labor movement can and should look like. Reaching out to railroad unions, railroad locals, involving them, and showing solidarity. Also, questioning the railroad industry that is holding the economy hostage. Key shipments not making it because of the chaos within the industry. Why should operational decisions be made by a handful of people whose only motivation is profit in an industry that has so much impact on everything. That  raises the question of not only public but also democratic ownership and control. I think we need to be fighting and advocating for our own Labor Party, with real accountability for candidates. We lost 30 percent of jobs in our industry in the last decade. In my area, we went from four jobs in the Wooster yard to one job in the last three years. We need a new way to fight that can get results or we are going to see the death of the industry as we know it.

Author Biography
Kressent Pottenger holds an MA in Labor Studies from The Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at CUNY and was awarded the SEIU 925 Research Fellowship by Wayne State University in 2012. She is currently working on a research project about 925 and women organizing in the workplace.