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“Miserable” and getting worse

Interview with Railroad Workers United co-chair

Paul KD interviews Ross Grooters, co-chair of Railroad Workers United, a coalition of rank-and-filers, about the current state of the railways, the impact of deregulation, the pandemic, and the possibility of coordinated struggle in the industry.

Paul KD: Ross, can you start by talking a little bit about yourself and what you do and what Railroad Workers United is?

Ross Grooters: Definitely. So I’m Ross Grooters. I’m a railroad worker. I work as a locomotive engineer and I’m co-chair of Railroad Workers United, which is a cross-craft coalition made up of various members from 13 different railroad craft unions. Railroad Workers United essentially was formed to bring these different rail unions together, the rank and file of the different unions together in a discussion to help make our unions, and therefore our workplaces, better for all the workers on the railroad. Railroad Workers United has been around for more than 10 years. It seems like time flies. We have a biennial convention, and it coincides with Labor Notes.

And I guess a little more about me is I’ve been working on the railroad for 18 years and live here in the Midwest. I’m involved in a myriad of things: I’m a member of DSA, and I’m on my local city council representing workers’ interests, and serve on the public transit commission.

An antique photo of midwest railroad workers.
An earlier moment of Midwest railroad worker militancy. Olive street, St Louis, railroad strikers, 1881. Photo by Missouri History Museum.

PKD: So, I’ve seen a lot of reports about the current state of the railways. And so I guess the first question is just, what is it like working right now for you? And then, as a part B to that, how has the pandemic, and also the George Floyd uprising back in 2020, impacted your work?

RG: So, I think the shortest answer I can give for summing up what it’s like working on the railroad right now is it’s miserable. It’s not a good work environment. It’s incredibly toxic, and it’s been made so increasingly in recent years because the railroads have adopted a model called Precision Scheduled Railroading. This has been around for a while and was first implemented on the Illinois Central, a smaller railroad, and then migrated to Canada to work on some of the Class One railroads up there, and eventually now has in some form been adopted by all the major railroad carriers.

This model is essentially the Wall Street financialization of railroads. It’s just squeezing every last penny. It’s production above all else, and trying to make sure that operating ratios are maximized. All these kind of business jargon that are used, it’s really just squeezing more out of workers for less and that’s in a nutshell. It doesn’t help run the railroads any better. It doesn’t help consumers or customers. It doesn’t help people in our communities. It doesn’t help the workers. It’s just simply about the bottom line and Wall Street profits.

So that’s a little bit about how the railroad is operating right now and what it’s like to work on the railroad. As far as the pandemic goes, one of the first things I can point out is that very early in the spring of 2020 the railroads were all ready to go. They operate together in a national rail carriers coalition, and they were ready very early on with a series of emergency exemptions on regulations.

So essentially, they deregulated as much as they could through the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees rules that the railroads operate by. And so, they implemented all kinds of exemptions on safety and inspections and, what they could get away with, with working rules.

And so they got all these things passed. And then when it came to actually implementing safety protocols or protecting workers, there was very little. Eventually mask mandates were implemented for the railroads by the federal government, but done so pretty lax and not with any effectiveness.

I would say that most workers probably had as much or more protections than railroad workers, who pretty much went about working throughout the pandemic as if it was business as usual. And of course we saw the same kinds of cuts to the workforce so that they can operate with fewer workers, some of that due to people getting sick. At the same time, you had little attention to putting in protections in place that would help the workers. We don’t get unemployment. We rely on what’s called railroad unemployment, through the Railroad Retirement Board. So it comes out of a self-funded retirement fund. Its subsidy is substantially less than unemployment.

And it was just incredibly hard. I know people that got sick at work for railroads that were disciplined. That wasn’t necessarily the norm, but it wasn’t uncommon. And it’s worth noting that railroads are one of the top violators of whistleblower protection. Reporting an illness that you got on the job would be one of those protections. So despite those protections, railroads violate that routinely.

You asked about the George Floyd protests and to my knowledge, it didn’t affect the railroad. Although I can remember working one night in the Summer of 2020 when I could smell tear gas at work on a locomotive here in Des Moines, Iowa, which is just incredible when you think about it. I don’t think it really affected anything in terms of my workplace, and I don’t know of any throughout the nation.

PKD: What are the racial and sexual dynamics within the workforce?

RG: I’m not sure of the demographics of the railroad industry. Anecdotally, It’s going to depend on craft or geographic location. I would say here it’s dominated by white men. I think that there is diversity on the railroad without question, but a lot of times it tends to be in the other crafts that I don’t work in.

PKD: When I was doing some prep for the interview, I found an old CSPAN clip from 1991, which is the last time that there was a national rail strike. The workers were calling in, and they were talking about similar issues, like having to be on call 24/7, the rails wanting to cut jobs, then from five to two, and now I think it’s from two to one.

So, the question then is, how have workers over the last 40 years faced this onslaught? And then the second question is, what will it take to actually break this pattern of job cuts and rationalization and so forth?

RG: I’d love to see the clip. I’m trying to think if I work with anybody who would have been on the railroad in 1991, and I can’t think of any locally who would have been around to even ask that question to. It is a very similar struggle. And I think my answer comes down to organizing. We need to organize our workplaces, organize our unions. We have an organized workplace in that we have a union. But, our unions need to be organized! And when I say unions, there are 13 different craft railroad unions. We can’t just be in our craft bubbles, we need to be building coalitions that are across union internationals and educating ourselves and our coworkers. I don’t want to get too Wobbly, but it is the old mantra of, educate, agitate, organize, and I guess that is how I see that we can break the struggle.

And that’s one of the reasons that I’m involved with Railroad Workers United. We’re not going to break that cycle unless we’re coming together and engaging in that common struggle to fight back against these companies making billions of dollars in profits.

Once we begin to come together and organize internally, then we start to turn outside and organize externally. I think that’s where I’m talking about the airlines. We both fall into the Railway Labor Act. There’s opportunities there for us to work together outside of our industry, in an industry that’s under similar federal regulation. Railroad Workers United is working on building some relationships with some more leftist rank and file truckers that are organizing out West.

So things like that, where we’re turning our eyes kind of externally and trying to build support for what it is we see happening. And there’s overlap, right? Like what’s happening on the rail industry is not unique to rails. It’s all over in every industry throughout the country.
PKD: Do you want to talk about how it works, that you have 13 unions on the same job? And then second to that, what is your role as a rank-and-file group? What is RWU’s role as an industry-wide grouping, especially when we start to talk about the RLA bargaining process, which is super complex?

RG: Yeah, the bargaining process is definitely one that’s complex. When we talk about Railroad Workers United and our role in bargaining, we don’t necessarily have one, we don’t represent anybody. We’re just a coalition. Kind of like almost a cross-craft caucus, if you will. So contracts and bargaining is something strictly left to the 13 craft unions. To the craft unions’ credit, this round of bargaining they’ve held together. All 13 crafts, just like the rail carriers, have maintained a unity in bargaining.

We’ve been without contract for over two years now. We operate under the previous contract under the Railway Labor Act, and the bargaining does get quite complex. It’s only within the last couple months that that process has moved out of the second stage. And there’s up to 15 or 16 stages.

So the initial step is the companies file what’s called a Section Six notice. The Section Six notice is essentially your demand. So the company files its demand, the rail unions file their demands and kind of exchange them.

Those tend to be just wordy documents. I think a couple of years ago, when I read through what the rail carriers wanted, it was like, 26 or 30 pages. And not saying specifically, but more broadly, like, “hey, this is what’s going on with our industry and what we expect out of bargaining.”

And so those are exchanged, and then the two parties come together at the negotiating table. So going back to Railroad Workers United, I think this is where we come in. First off, we haven’t always, as craft unions, bargained together. Pattern bargaining, just like other industries, exists and the companies would pit us off against each other and try to get one craft to sign something that could be pushed down through all crafts.

In the past, that happened. I think Railroad Workers United really pushed to insist that all of our unions bargain together. I’m not sure how much influence we had on that process, but I’d like to think it was not insignificant. That’s part one, but then there’s a lot I can’t tell you about what the bargaining process has been because as a railroad worker, I just don’t have the information. It doesn’t make it down to our level.

So we go through this convoluted process under the Railway Labor Act. I can send you a PDF that Railroad Workers United put out in the last round of bargaining that just kind of details all those steps. I think the big takeaway is, it goes through this process, each step of the way, whether it’s arbitration or mediation or you know, all these different steps, the thing the Railway Labor Act is designed to do is keep railroad workers working every step of the way.

There are protections built in to protect workers from seeking self-help or going on strike. That’s an important piece for people to know about the Railway Labor Act is, as railroad workers, it is very difficult for us to find that path to a strike. I think it was the contract of about 12 years ago, we were probably hours from going on strike. And then President Obama instituted a Presidential Emergency Board, where he appointed people who sit down, look at both sides, and propose a solution that then becomes a contract that can be ratified by both parties. That appears to be the direction we’re headed in, in this round of negotiations, as well as best I can tell.

PKD: Great. Just on the day-to-day experience, if you’re an engineer and you’re working with a conductor, who’s in a different union, what does that look like on the day-to-day? If both of you are having an issue, do you file grievances in separate processes or something?

RG: That’s a great question. And the short answer is yes. We would have different contracts, so over the one hundred and fifty years or so that the rail unions have been around, agreements have been built upon agreements have been built upon agreements, and different crafts have all had their own little nuances in their agreements. So as a locomotive engineer, my contract grievances might not be the same as a conductor who I’m working with on that same shift. A lot of times they may be similar, but not always. That process is, again, designed in favor of the employer to keep us from really seeking any kind of meaningful remediation. It’s a convoluted process that eventually goes to an arbiter to rule a monetary value for whatever contract violation has occurred. Those can be very different from conductor to engineer.

I will say that, you know, we’re all coworkers together in the same workplace. We socialize together, we know each other and I have a lot of respect for members of SMART-TD. They’re the ones who primarily represent the conductors. I’m a member of BLET, which primarily represents the rail engineers. I could choose to be a member in either union or even both unions. If I wanted to pay double dues, I could do that. But for me, it’s who holds my contract and that’s where I need to be. But I have a lot of respect for what SMART-TD is doing.

To the credit of our rail unions, more and more over the last few years, we’ve seen joint statements from both SMART-TD and BLET, and we’ve seen them working more closely together. And again, going back to Railroad Workers United, I don’t want to toot our own horn too much, but that was one of the main drivers of our creation, to bring these two crafts in particular together because they were definitely at odds fifteen, twenty years ago. We just really wanted to stop that and say that, “hey, we’re, we’re in the same workplaces where we’re working together. We need to be in this together.” We have a common enemy, and it’s that simple.

That’s been a positive change. And I do think Railroad Workers United has had some responsibility in helping steer that direction.

PKD: How did you go about that? What has been the work that RWU has done to move that forward?

RG: I’ve been in Railroad Workers United since 2015. So, I wasn’t there in the beginning when a lot of these conversations were happening. But, first off, it’s coming together in one space to say “these are the issues.” And then start to work on some framing and common language to go back to our respective unions and maybe issue a resolution that says, “Hey, let’s bargain coordinated as an all-crafts coalition.

We’ve passed so many resolutions over the years that it’s hard to point to just one that stands out. And when we’ve done that, when we’ve taken those actions, we’ve been sure to send those to the craft union and say, “Hey, this is what we believe in and what we expect of our union leadership.”

It’s been over a decade of things like that. I don’t think that’s necessarily the only thing I’d point to as to what we’ve done, but for the life of me and maybe it’s because I worked all night last night, I can’t think of a better example right now.

PKD: I think that’s a really great example of kind of like, yeah, like the slow day-to-day work that makes something happen in a hard-to-change structure, like a union.

RG: One other thing. You’re doing this interview for Tempest and that’s something that Railroad Workers United has done is we’ve had a quarterly newsletter that we put out, where we can share these positions and have some commentary on the state of the unions and the industry. We’ve been able to communicate with rank-and-file workers through that newsletter. And there’s no doubt that railroad union leadership has seen those as well. You know, when we’re using language that we then see mirrored in our national leadership, is it coincidence maybe? I’ll let your readers decide.

PKD: You know, in the grocery store industry, there are a lot of Facebook groups. They’re the only way a lot of people can talk to each other across the industry, but it’s just people saying angry things in the comments on Facebook. That’s not the same as the newsletter. So that’s something that seems to me like a difference between y’all and other unions.

RG: I mean, there’s definitely those things on the railroad too. Kind of reactionary festivals on Facebook. I think another thing that I just mentioned and highlighted is every two years, we’re getting together as railroad workers and putting on a two day conference in conjunction with Labor Notes. Barring any strange occurrences from COVID, we’ll be there this summer in Chicago and I hope to have some panels in conjunction with Labor Notes, where maybe we’re having some of the same conversations as this one here right now, across the industries.

PKD: You’ve mentioned about how there are these really big complicated processes and how a lot of it is designed to keep the worker working and tilt in favor of the employer. I can assume that on the day-to-day workers get pissed off at their job. I’ve seen a lot of writing about the Great Resignation and people saying, “Fuck you, I quit” as some kind of subconscious political act. So, how are workers resisting stuff like this on the day-to-day?

RG: It’s a valid question. I’m not sure. I think it’s a mixed bag. The railroad has always been kind of a career industry, right? We have a very good retirement. It’s better than social security. We pay into it throughout our careers and it can be a very good reason to stay on the railroad until age sixty for that thirty-and-sixty. We have seen more and more people who are fed up with it and choosing to leave the industry who have ten, fifteen years in. That is incredible, an uncommon and a newer development.

The railroads have helped push that. For the last ten to twelve years, coming out of the housing bubble, the railroads hired large numbers of workers. And throughout that period, they would furlough and recall these people two, three, and four times. You can imagine maybe going through that, what that might be like. At some point you’re gonna make a rational choice. This is just not worth it. The railroads have operated in that way for so long that now when the pandemic hits, there was this crunch, and it’s a very favorable environment for workers to be able to choose their employment.

People aren’t choosing the railroad. Hiring sessions are happening and they’re not getting applicants like they once did. The job isn’t sounding as lucrative as it once was, and the railroads have tarnished their images. They’ve self-inflicted these wounds and created the situation where people just do not want to work for them.

They can go work for similar money somewhere else with a better schedule or a more reliable schedule. Being furloughed is no fun. People just don’t want to go through that and have that uncertainty. And even now that everybody has come back from furlough that wants to, there’s a shortage of workpower. They don’t have the labor they need to operate efficiently, and it leads to people being burnt out more and more. People are working more, they’re working longer hours, they’re working harder, they don’t have the time off. It does lead to a lot of individual action absent that kind of internal union organizing.

PKD: That was really fascinating. It’s really interesting to hear about an industry where they’re trying to turn it from “you work thirty years and you retire” into this kind of reserve army of labor, kind of like how construction works. So, looking ahead, there is a history of nearly unanimous votes by Congress to end railroad strikes when they happen. I read a quote from a Democrat in 1991, the last time they had one of these votes, and he was saying he had “never seen an issue resolved with so little partisan politics.” So I think one question is what does this tell us about our political system? But then also, we’re both members of DSA and there are DSA elected officials in Congress.

So what could a socialist elected like AOC do to support you, besides not taking part in that bipartisan extravaganza?

RG: I mean, I think not playing part is, you hit the nail on the head with that, but really it’s just knowing the workers’ issues and the workers’ stories. I hate to rely too much on what Bernie Sanders has done in helping organize labor and being there to hear labor and support labor, but that’s a large part of it. Just knowing worker’s issues and being an advocate and helping tell those stories, knowing that these companies turn out fat dividend checks every quarter and make billions in profits. Really, they need to be sharing that wealth.

At some point it could come down to a congressional decision. I would hope that those DSA elected officials are there advocating for workers in those spaces. It’s potentially a pressure point at the same time. We as workers need to put in the legwork to organize and get our stories out there, and share our narrative to ensure that the public support is being built for Congress to make the decision they should and represent workers and not these companies.

When we’re sitting around and have a few free moments to talk about the state of our industry it is certainly that discussion about the crew size and the reduction in jobs. We’ve already seen reduction in jobs, in crafts like maintenance employees whether it be track or rail cars, or locomotives, we’ve already seen reductions in those workforces.

We’ve seen them in the conductors and engineers. Those are going to continue, but of course the prize for the railroads is crew size. Right now, on a freight railroad, there’s a conductor and engineer. They’d love to have just one and I’m sure their dream is to fully automate and have nobody in the cab of a locomotive.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that as we’re working more and more, and there’s fewer and fewer employees, that there is sort of this manufactured crisis being brought forth that is causing the rail carriers to not operate efficiently. Eventually they’re not going to be functioning the way they need to transport freight across the country. When that happens, I think we as workers see the writing on the wall that they’re gonna say, “Hey, we don’t have the employees to do this. So let us do it with fewer employees, let us do it with one crew member. Let us do it with nobody in that cab.”

And so, when it comes to Congress and bipartisanship, I hope that the narrative that is communicated is that these companies are, are definitely creating this, and it’s self-inflicted. It’s likely they’re doing it intentionally to push for this end goal. We, as workers, can’t fall for that, and hopefully the public and elected officials don’t either.

Featured image credit: Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York. Modified by Tempest.

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Paul KD View All

Paul KD is a member of UFCW Local 663, an activist in the labor movement in the Twin Cities, and a member of the Tempest Collective.