Supply Chain Crisis Deepens – Interview with a Rail Worker

by Sam Skinner

Nicholas Wurst is a freight conductor in Massachusetts for CSX and is a member of SMART-TD, one of the rail unions. Previously he worked in an intermodal yard for CSX and was a member of TCU/IAM. He is a  member of the Independent Socialist Group. 

The news is full of stories about the delays and chaos in the critical industry of freight railroad shipping. What is happening?

Recently, the Surface Transportation Board (STB), a government body that regulates freight railroads, held hearings on the crisis due to complaints about huge delays in the movement of goods by train from corporations and industries that rely on freight rail. The supply chain crisis that became a common headline during the pandemic is very real. This crisis is far reaching, affecting most industries from manufacturing to agriculture. The chairman of the STB said “The country is going to have a lot of trouble if 30 days and 60 days from now these numbers aren’t much different…We’re going to miss the planting season, we’ve got fuel problems. That’s what I’m concerned about.”

Why has freight shipping become so inefficient? 

Rail customers and unions generally place the blame for the recent problems on something called Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR). When you cut through all of the jargon, it is fundamentally a strategy for cutting jobs, eliminating resources, and anything else that will slash expenses and make the railroads more profitable in the short term and the shareholders happier. PSR is just the latest in capitalist railroad strategy, grabbing more profit from using and abusing workers, forcing fewer and fewer workers to do more work, and it’s not unique in terms of putting profits over efficiency and planning.

How are the bosses and CEOs proposing that this be fixed?

Basically everyone agrees that the main problem is a shortage of train crews. Nobody, except for some of the union officials and workers who spoke at the hearings, seemed to have a clue about what steps could be taken to address the crisis.  None of the capitalists or politicians who participated in the hearings put forward any solutions to improve the conditions of train crews and/or rail workers more broadly. 

Speaking as a rail worker, how do you think the lack of train crews could be fixed? 

Several things could happen immediately that would help alleviate the understaffing issue.  The railroads are hiring, but that’s not enough. Many new hires are not staying. There is a massive gap between entry-level pay for new hires and full pay. Schedules are brutal with long days, little time off (especially for new workers), and harsh attendance policies which punish workers for calling out sick or taking time off. All these things cause new workers to quit. And even if the railroads manage to hire more workers and retain them, the railroad companies have been working for years to change regulations to allow them to run trains with just a single crew member on board. This is extremely dangerous. The CEO of CSX said at the hearing “let us run trains with a single crew member, and there won’t be a crew shortage”, making it clear that this crisis has been weaponized by the companies to further attack jobs! Single person crews would effectively mean abolishing the conductor position, which is generally the entry point to working as crew. So new conductors, like myself, don’t feel a lot of job security when there’s always the possibility that the railroads manage to bribe enough politicians to get the regulations changed. It’s clear that the profit motive won’t allow rail companies to actually address the issues brought up at the STB hearing, no matter what they say. The capitalists who own the railroads will never fully staff the jobs of their own free will, because understaffing is exactly how they make their profits—getting one worker to do what a decade ago two or three workers would have done, all while paying them the same low salary. The threat of single-person crews needs to be taken off the table, pay needs to be increased so we don’t have to rely on overtime to survive, and the railroads need to be forced to hire many, many more workers in all crafts in order to make our hours and schedules bearable, with enough staff to cover use of personal time, to create real weekends off, and to allow adequate time to rest in between shifts.

It seems like a lot of the issues in the railroad industry come back to the worsening conditions of rail workers like yourself. Have rail workers been organizing against these changes?

There is widespread anger in our industry. A huge percentage of the workforce are veteran railroaders who have borne the brunt of decades of corporate attacks, and remember the “good times” when more trains ran with larger crews, shorter hours, and better pay. In the midst of this upsurge in labor activity in the US, there’s also been an increased interest in our workplace fight from labor activists and news sources. However, there are huge obstacles in the way of rail workers taking action. We are divided into over a dozen different unions, which are some of the most conservative unions around in terms of strategy. Railroad workers are also subject to special labor law under the Railroad Labor Act, which places legal barriers in the way of taking action. That said, there are some signs of life. For example, at BNSF, the largest railroad in the country, the adoption of a brutal new attendance policy resulted in SMART-TD and BLET (two rail unions) workers voting to strike. Ultimately the strike didn’t happen, as it was challenged in court by the company, and a judge (who had represented BNSF as a lawyer earlier in his career) ruled that the dispute was “minor” and therefore strike action couldn’t be taken. The conciliatory union leadership probably counted on this decision to justify backing down from the members’ strike vote, although protests have continued, including a protest outside of a recent BNSF shareholders’ meeting. Since the adoption of the “Hi-Viz” attendance policy, hundreds of BNSF workers have quit in protest.

What do you think is the way forward for rail workers like yourself, when it comes to improving the conditions of railroad workers? 

It’s clear to me that it isn’t through the STB or any other government agency. The regulatory bodies are staffed with industry insiders and politicians from the two parties that serve corporations, like the major railroad companies. Even in the middle of this crisis, STB recently approved CSX’s purchase of Pan Am railroad, giving them even more track to mismanage. Federal regulators and politicians of both parties, as well as the current union leadership have overseen the decline of working conditions of railroaders and have ignored the warning signs of the supply chain crisis for decades. The biggest rail worker contract in the country expired in 2019. At every step the unions negotiating this contract have avoided going on strike. Instead, the union bureaucrats turn to the federal government for mediation, the same government that is in the railroads’ pockets. 

The way forward for rail workers in the U.S. is shown in our own past, with things like the Pullman strike, and union leader and socialist Eugene V. Debs’s vision of a single American Railroad Union to unite all railroad workers into one militant fighting union. I don’t think the current union leaders are capable of carrying that out, so I think it’s up to railroad workers who want to fight to get together and start organizing, and studying labor history and strategy. We have to build organizations within our unions that can put together an alternative program for rail labor, with a fighting approach to confronting the bosses, defending jobs, winning better pay and hours, and organizing new workers. These organizations should run members for leadership elections. Beyond just building more militant unions, we have to have a clear vision of an alternative to profit-seeking capitalist mismanagement for the railroads. Socialism on the railroads would mean that the railroads would be publicly owned, and democratically managed by committees of elected and recallable representatives from rail workers and the public. Massive expansion of jobs, wages, benefits and time off, mass construction of green public transit and new freight rail, and so much more would be possible when those of us who do the work also take control and are a major part of deciding how the railroads should run.