Union representatives and railroad worker supporters plan to rally at the Capitol in Cheyenne Tuesday to advocate for better labor policies. The rally, scheduled to begin at noon, is organized by Wyoming AFL-CIO and other unions, according to the organization’s executive director Tammy Johnson.
Congressional action to block a rail strike and force a labor agreement deflected what would have been a major economic shock to the nation. But it leaves hundreds of workers and their families in Wyoming with the same “inhumane” scheduling policies, Johnson said. Railroad employees, fearing they could be fired, will continue to work fatigued and forgo taking sick days — a health and safety concern that also puts the general public at risk, she said.
“While the public may have seen the raises associated with the agreement and think that is a win for rail workers, what is not contained in the agreement is why rail workers reject the agreement,” Johnson told WyoFile.
Workers are essentially on-call 365 days a year, and are penalized under a point system for taking days off, she said. “It’s immoral and inhumane for a multi-billion-dollar profiteering company, long supported by the federal government, to treat its employees in this way,” Johnson said.
Under the labor agreement forced by Congress, railroad workers will receive an immediate 14.1% wage increase and a 24% increase by 2024 based on 2020 rates, according to the National Railway Labor Conference. Union rail workers will also see increased health benefits. However, the deal includes only one additional personal leave day — far short of what unions demanded.
The deal essentially allows railroad companies to continue using penalizing point-based systems that union representatives, including the SMART Transportation Division Local 65 in Wyoming, say compel employees to work when fatigued or sick, creating unsafe conditions. The Berkshire Hathaway-owned BNSF Railway, for example, launched its “Hi-Viz” attendance policy in February. It established a point-based system that allows employees to bank points by being available on “high impact days” and penalizes them for taking certain days off. If an employee loses all their points, he or she can be fired.
Hi-Viz and other penalty-based systems are the result of the railroads instituting several rounds of layoffs, in part due to declining demand for coal before the pandemic, according to local union members. Since then, railroads have been instituting attendance policies to meet recovering demand with fewer workers.
“So what we have is a huge impact on employees, but also the public because we have people out there basically driving drunk,” SMART Transportation Division Local 65 Chairman Kevin Knutson told WyoFile in May, referring to the concern they are working fatigued or sick.
What they want
Though states have little authority in railroad labor negotiations, the Wyoming Legislature can impose some minimum standards.
For example, railroads have been increasing the length of trains while reducing the number of crew members that operate them — a safety concern. Proposed legislation in 2020 would have set a minimum of two crew members per train, but the measure failed introduction to the Senate.
The Legislature should again consider a minimum crew measure, as well as minimum standards regarding the length of trains, Johnson said.