Union Pacific's railyard in Bill. (Alan Nash)

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.

The deal

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.

Empty railroad tracks near Bill stretch north toward the Powder River Basin coal mining complex in March 2016. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

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.

Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Wow, here we are–despite all our fancy, lithium-powered electroeggmobiles, solar panels and windmills–living back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, complete with nut-case, earth-plundering robber barons, along with a national legislature, not to mention judicial and executive branches, that bow low before them.

    Guess it was just a matter of time once Taft-Hartley was enacted soon after the second global war ended in mushroom clouds.

    Fortunately, global warming will put an end to this disgusting situation and, hopefully, finally result in a new–and actually intelligent–top species to replace us dumb monkeys before the sun burns out. We always did overrate ourselves–and still do.

  2. if the railroad workers are not happy with their job,then quit !
    their are plenty of illegal immigrants waiting to take their place.

  3. This sounds like the work force through out the USA. Unions in the past stuck up for their employees,but maybe they are bought off by the corporate head. American ,is corporate controlled, CEOs make way more money than they deserve. It’s the American workers who are the losers. No health insurance , long working hours, no respect, no family leave, not enough vacation days. The American people are corporate slaves here in the USA.