The clock is ticking for railroads and unions to avert a strike

LINCOLN, Neb. (KLKN) – Railway companies and their unions have until Sept. 15 to come to an agreement before workers are legally allowed to go on strike.

After the Presidential Emergency Board’s report on Aug. 16, the railways and unions were put in a 30-day cooling off period, at the end of which workers could begin strikes or work stoppages.

The board, appointed by the Biden administration, issued its report with recommendations for a settlement between the railroad industry and unions.

The report was meant to find a middle ground between the two sides.

It calls for a 24% pay increase by 2024, which the Association of American Railroads says is the largest increase in over 40 years.

The association also said that it is ready to propose an agreement based on the recommendations and that “in the interest of all rail stakeholders, now is the time for railroads and their unions to reach a contract.”

But railroad unions are unhappy with the terms and have pointed out the wage increase is still below inflation level.

Jakob Forsgren of the Brotherhood of Maintenance Way Employes Division, a group of workers who help build and maintain railroads in the U.S., says rail workers are especially upset after several companies said their work did not  create profits.

“You can imagine how members of a labor organization and employees of a company feel after something like that is written about them,” Forsgren said. “It’s a bit tough to handle.”

Thousands of rail workers across the country have been working without a contract for nearly 3 years.

Forsgren says now they are pushing for better pay and changes in attendance policies, such as the Hi-Viz Policy, which requires workers to be available to work 29 out of 30 days or face punishment.

“Let’s be honest, these aren’t the safest jobs in the world at times, and so every day that me or my members go to work, we risk our lives,” he said. “And so with all due respect to the railroad executives, we risk things a lot more valuable than money.”

Furthermore, Forsgren says that as a 10-year railroader he and his fellow workers risk more than their lives at risk doing their jobs.

“Every time I get sent away for work by the railroads, you know, I risk further damaging my marriage when I miss birthdays and anniversaries,” he said. “I risk further damage to the relationship with my kids when I miss helping with homework, when I miss T-ball and basketball games.”

Back in July, rail workers held a rally in Lincoln to urge BNSF, a railway company covering much of the Midwest, to reach a union contract.

Many workers at that rally also told of unsafe working conditions and said the company was attempting to cut staff in ways that would create a dangerous environment.

A strike would not only further the conflict between railroad companies and their unions but could involve the Biden administration and Congress, who might intervene to shut it down.

A strike could also exacerbate inflation, as interruptions to the supply chain and shipping can drive up prices of goods.

“We supply coal to power plants. We’re getting into harvest season, so we’re gonna start moving grain here pretty soon,” Forsgren said. “I mean it would drastically affect the supply chain, and again, that’s not something that the membership is wanting to do. We don’t want to do things like that. We would much rather get a fair contract that is worthy of ratification.”

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