On Thursday, September 21st, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled “A Union Railroad Job In Congress.”

In it, the Editorial Board cast aspersions on nameless, faceless railroad unions, directly stating that labor sought to capitalize on the life-altering devastation that has crippled East Palestine, Ohio in the aftermath of the Feb. 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern derailment. To the board’s credit, it was refreshing that there were no thinly veiled inferences. They were quite direct in stating their feeling that our nation’s rail unions are unapologetic opportunists looking to pad their own stats and satiate their members, rather than serve as truthful stewards, defending the industry’s labor and safety standards as we have since the 1850s.

To be equally direct: the commentary presented in the editorial is patently false and intentionally misleading.

First and foremost, the commentary of this board smacks of industry propaganda from the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the lobbying arm of the largest railroad companies. AAR CEO Ian Jefferies has been on a public relations tour of all available media outlets since the derailment in February. While the glow of the tanker car fire was still burning in East Palestine, industry leaders began their damage control. It has been surprisingly unsuccessful because national media outlets, like The Wall Street Journal, have been covering the fallout in East Palestine and its implications on the future of railroad safety.

Public interest has been renewed by each derailment around the nation since February. The interest of outlets big and small in covering railroad derailments has shed light on how prevalent they are. Many statistics have been thrown around in news stories, but the number most cited by the rail industry is that there are 1,700 derailments annually. Averaging over 4.5 derailments a day nationwide has made it difficult for the rail companies and the AAR to change the topic like they have in the past. It appears the NS derailment in early February was the proverbial genie and it’s proven difficult to shove it back into the bottle.

In lieu of downplaying the validity of the message that rail safety in the nation could be improved, it seems that the industry has changed course and is now opting to undercut the validity of the messengers. Historically, it is difficult for even a monopolistic behemoth like the railroads to win a fight with the Fourth Estate as it covers derailments and railroad safety as a public service, showing indeed that it can happen here. Obviously, they have made the calculation that scapegoating the unions representing our country’s railroad workers is easier.

The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers’ Transportation Division (SMART-TD), the nation’s largest union in the railroad industry, welcomes this discussion.  

When operating vehicles that weigh 40 million pounds and stretch in excess of four miles, there is no way to “overemphasize” safety. To imply otherwise is indicative of a desire to downplay the widespread, shared consequences of rail safety in general. When operating the largest land vehicles on the planet that need every bit of a mile to come to a stop before hitting a vehicle stuck on a crossing, we cannot afford to discard any method to improve safety standards and bring about the necessary changes to decrease the accepted norm of 1,700 derailments each year.

From the outset, a disconnect is evident between the WSJ editorial board with the reality of rail workers as well as those who live in the communities that the railroads roll through. A WSJ editorial published on Sunday, April 16th states that, “Rail disasters are mercifully rare.”

Though very few reach the level of devastation of East Palestine and its subsequent chemical fire, the fact is that there is nothing “mercifully rare” about rail incidents in this country. They are more than a daily occurrence and any instance of one or more SMART-TD members being at risk of losing life, limb, or livelihood is unacceptable. To downplay these facts is irresponsible and disingenuous.

Unfortunately, both WSJ editorials were too riddled with insults to both the hard-working men and women who haul this nation’s freight as well as the dedicated public servants who wrote the Rail Safety Act of 2023, to address each individually.

SMART-TD would be remiss if we didn’t address the overarching insult that was meant to be the stinging conclusion. “Sens. Brown and Vance are using railway safety as an excuse for a union payoff.”

This insinuation of a quid pro quo indicates a level of desperation on the part of the AAR and its member railroads and all the opponents of the Railway Safety Act of 2023.

Sen. Brown has been in Congress for over two decades. His commitment to the safety of the people of Ohio and of workers is beyond reproach. As far as freshman Senator J.D. Vance goes, SMART-TD not only did not endorse the Senator in his 2022 campaign, we endorsed and actively supported his opponent, Congressman Tim Ryan. J.D. Vance has zero reason to “use railway safety as an excuse for a union payoff.” The only dog Vance has in this fight is the safety of Ohioans/Americans. Isn’t that the side we are all supposed to be on?

By James Stem, UTU National Legislative Director

The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) was not all that rail labor wanted in a safety bill, but it was a good start, and contains much of what we have long sought. Work still needs to be done, including an end to limbo time, advance notice of start times, and an end to arbitrary discipline tied to unreasonable availability policies.

We said after passage of the bill that we would work with our friends in Congress to refine and improve the bill.

The process has begun.

In his final days in Congress, Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) introduced H.R. 6519, the Railroad Hours of Service Act.

Rail labor and Mr. Oberstar, one of the best friends rail labor has ever had in Congress, knew there was not time in the lame-duck session of Congress for the bill — which includes improvements to hours-of-service provisions of the RSIA — to pass.

Thus, H.R. 6519 was intended as a place-setter — a bill whose provisions already are winning support among UTU lawmaker friends and which will be re-introduced by other friends of the UTU in the new Congress in 2011.

The UTU, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen will be working closely on a new bill with our congressional friends of labor come January and the start of the new Congress.

Provisions of the bill include:

  • An affirmative statement that railroad workers subject to hours-of-service “shall be provided predictable and defined work and rest periods.”
  • A required 10 hours of undisturbed rest be taken immediately prior to going on duty rather than immediately after going off duty. This provision is intended to end the common practice of so-called “paper deadheads” and “dropped turns” with a 10-hour call.
  • All yardmaster — as well as co-mingled service as yardmasters and dispatchers — are to be subject to hours-of-service regulations.
  • Deadheads in excess of a time period shall count will count as job starts.
  • All interim release periods are to require prior notification before going off duty.
  • Limbo time will be restricted to two hours per each tour of duty.

Although some provisions we also want were not included in H.R. 6519, we will be working to have them included in the new bill this next session of Congress.

They include:

  • A provision to cover regular yard assignments with defined start times under provisions that now apply to passenger and commuter rail assignments.
  • A provision that no amount of time at an away-from-home terminal will reset the calendar day clock.
  • A provision requiring that hot, nutritious food be available 24 hours per day at the sleeping quarters.

The UTU also will support additional provisions specific to railroad signalmen as sought by their organization.

The new Congress will include 100 new members, and many were elected with the support of rail labor organizations. We have already begun discussions with those new members and are continuing discussions with our other friends in Congress toward early introduction of the Oberstar place-setter, with the additional provisions included.

By International President Mike Futhey

Compromise is the art of successful negotiations. But when one party goes to the negotiating table unwilling to compromise, the results can be unpleasant for both, and produce a result that might not be the best choice.

Such was the case with the Rail Safety Improvement Act passed by Congress last fall.

Repeatedly, rail labor told the carriers that if we don’t jointly reach a negotiated agreement on employee fatigue, limbo time, availability policies and arbitrary discipline, that a major rail accident would force Congress to write legislation that neither the carriers nor labor would like.

The UTU and the other rail unions, whose members are subject to hours-of-service regulations, had three objectives:

  1. An end to limbo time, with a short phase-out period.
  2. Advance notice of start times, or a minimum of a 10-hour call.
  3. An end to arbitrary discipline tied to unreasonable availability policies.

The carriers refused to accept rail labor’s objectives. So, when a series of severe and headline-grabbing rail accidents occurred, it became clear that Congress was going to act on its own.

The fatigue mitigation piece of the Rail Safety Improvement Act had been on Congress’s agenda for 15 years. The fatal accident in Chatsworth, Calif., involving a commuter train, was the ice breaker.

Rail labor’s position was consistent throughout the process.

The result was not all that rail labor or the carriers wanted in a rail safety bill. The 10-hour call principle was included only as a pilot project, and 10 hours of rest between each shift was mandated.

Had the carriers negotiated with us in good faith, the result could have been a joint recommendation to Congress that maximum flexibility be afforded carriers and rail labor to craft solutions based on the reality of local situations.

The best legislation always starts with an agreement in principle with the involved parties, but the railroads would not agree to any change in the application of unlimited limbo time, to accurate lineups, or an absenteeism policy that would force safety-critical employees to work when they were fatigued.

Instead, lawmakers took the one-size-fits-all approach because of the railroads’ refusal to discuss fatigue solutions.

We are now working to find local flexibility options to fine-tune the principles contained in the Rail Safety Improvement Act.

We are not optimistic that this can be achieved in so short a time frame, even though the carriers similarly want more flexibility in the law.

What we may be able to achieve is permission from the FRA for an FRA-monitored pilot project that permits flexible approaches instead of one-size-fits-all regulations.

The UTU and other rail operating unions are committed to do everything in their power to achieve more flexible regulations that recognize that situations are not equivalent across all railroads, all operating districts or all rail yards.

We will keep you informed.