After Congress voted Dec. 2 to preempt a railroad strike and force a contract on rank-and-file railroad workers that a majority of them had voted down, an increasing number are speaking out.
The railroad workers have voiced their anger with Congress, railroad ownership, and union leadership over issues that the new contract–under negotiation for two and a half years–does not improve, including having no paid sick days and being penalized for taking time off, as well as chronic understaffing and unsafe working conditions. The tentative agreement that union management and the railroads arrived at in September in mediation before a presidential emergency board includes only one extra paid day off and no sick time.
To learn what rank-and-file railroad workers think of the new contract, Atlanta Civic Circle spoke with Angel Poventud, a freight engineer at CSX Transportation, one of the U.S. “big four” railroads. We talked to Poventud just before his union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), elected a working railroader as its new president in an upset victory on Dec. 12.
In the latest fallout from the freight rail dispute, BLET members ousted their longtime president, Dennis Pierce, and elected Eddie Hall, an engineer on the Union Pacific railroad in Tucson, Arizona. Pierce got the BLET workers to ratify the contract in September after the union came within hours of striking, but many members were unhappy with the outcome.
Poventud has worked for CSX for 18 years and covers a route known as the Amityville sub, which runs through Atlanta, Athens, and Gainesville, Georgia. CSX and Norfolk Southern run the major freight rail routes in Atlanta and the Southeast.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Atlanta Civic Circle: It’s been reported that pay and time off were the major sticking points for the railroad workers who voted against the tentative agreement that Congress just enforced. Can you tell us more about that?
Angel Poventud: Yes. That headline number of a 24% raise [over five years], that’s a good number. I believe the union was asking for a 40% raise, and the compromise was 24%.
But we’re also asking for two weeks of sick pay, which we’ve never had, and an additional week of vacation. And the company came back and offered us one paid day off. We asked for 21 paid days off additional–and they came back with one. That’s the whole reason the strike threat was happening.
Your union’s members voted 99.5% in favor of striking over the contract back in June–mainly over the lack of sick days. Why are they such a big deal?
If I wake up tomorrow morning and I don’t feel good–and I say, “Hey, I can’t come into work today,” I get penalized my entire week of pay. That’s about $1,600. They just take the entire thing away. I also get penalized points as discipline for not being available, even if I have vacation days or personal leave days in my account.
We can’t use vacation days whenever. You can’t call tomorrow and say “Hey, I’d like to use a day of my vacation.” They don’t allow you to do that. You have to schedule those in advance.
So the whole reason we were trying to strike is that we have no flexibility or time off. Like, if I need time off tomorrow, I’m going to get hit hard on that day and then also get in trouble. And none of that changes as a result of us having to go back to work under the tentative agreement.
The five-year contract that Congress just imposed will expire in just two-and-a-half years because it took so long to negotiate. Rail workers face extreme difficulty in striking due to the Railway Labor Act. What do you think about that?
The negotiations take a year or two because we don’t have the ability to strike so there’s no pressure on the company. We tried to strike–we tried to use our union–and those are the only tools we have to disrupt the company, right? And Congress told us to go back to work.
If we’re a union without the ability to strike, now I’m paying $200 or $300 a month in union dues for nothing. Why can Congress still stop us from striking?
In 1926, when the Railway Labor Act was put into place [allowing Congress and the courts to intervene in railroad labor disputes], all mass passenger and freight movement was essentially on railroads. There were no airplanes and there was no interstate. Now, 30% or 40% of the movement of goods is by railroads, but back then it was probably closer to 80 or 90%. So why does Congress still have the ability to tell us what we can and can’t do when we’re not even as important now as we were back then?
How will that affect those contract negotiations in 2025–especially when the railroads know Congress would likely intervene again?
The company wants to go from having two people [an engineer and conductor] on every engine to one. They don’t want the conductor on the train. And these trains can be up to two miles long.
The big concession in this current contract is that the company wouldn’t push for one-man crews for the life of the contract. But, again, the next contract is just another two and a half years away, and then they can start trying to push for it again.
How does communication with your union work? How organized are the workers?
There’s a quarterly newsletter that goes out that’s pretty much useless, and that’s how we mostly hear from the union officially. There are monthly union meetings for the main branch of my line, but those are held at the other end of the line in Abbeville, South Carolina. I have never been to one of those. We do have local Facebook groups, so a lot of useful information ends up there. I’ve also written directly to union heads in the past.
How much contact is there between you and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen members at other railroads?
It’s minimal. I had one co-worker, a conductor, who’s now a Norfolk Southern employee. He came to CSX as a conductor from Norfolk Southern, but he just left and became a train dispatcher for Norfolk Southern again. It’s no better over there. You change the name on the engine. But everything is the same.
So what can you guys do now to get sick days? Do you have any options before the next contract?
Zero. We have to wait. We just tried to strike and Congress killed it. Luckily, the House tried to give us sick days, or at least put up the option and passed it. But with the Senate not voting that in and telling us to go back to work, we now can do nothing for the next two and a half years under this contract.
And then we get to start renegotiating for the next contract in two and a half years to try to get sick days or whatever else we might want to get.
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