Railroads and the Fight for Sick Leave: An Interview with Ross Grooters

Dec 12, 2022

Travis Smith

DES MOINES IOWA – On Sunday December 4th I sat down with Ross Grooters, co-chair of Railroad Workers United, and chatted about the recent labor contract agreement forced on workers by congress to find out how we got here, and what’s next. The transcript of this conversation is presented in full below.

*Note from Travis: At the time of this writing there is a planned union led action in Des Moines, Iowa on Tuesday 12/13/22 1-2 pm on the Iowa State Capitol grounds at the West Capitol Terrace. Edna Griffin School encourages all able to attend


Travis:  Welcome Ross. Thank you for, for joining me to talk about the railroads and the struggle.

Ross: Thanks for having me.

Travis: The kind of first thing I wanted to go over is just how did we get here? Biden just passed the bill forcing railroad workers to not be able to go on strike to get their sick days, but I know that this struggle didn't start yesterday. Can you kinda fill in the gaps for anybody who maybe hasn't been paying attention for a few years?

Ross: I sure can. I think where I will is  in actually the 1920s and Congress passed the Railway Labor Act specifically with the intention of creating a process for railway labor, and airline industry also got added into that, specifically for the purpose of avoiding a work stoppage because the railroads are so important to the country.

Because the workers have so much power, Congress literally enacted a law to prevent railroad workers, or to limit railroad workers' ability to strike. So kind of fast forward, railroad work has always been a dangerous job. It's been a difficult job. In recent years that has been financialized and that was through an operating model called “precision scheduled railroading” or PSR.

So what this has resulted in is with the last five years, about a thirty percent reduction in the workforce, and as much as 50,000 railroad workers missing from the industry in the last decade. It's not like there's less work to be done; that work is just being done by fewer people.

The precision is in how precisely can we cut the operation to the bone? How can we get it to bare bones so we have more work, or we have fewer workers doing more work and doing it under more strenuous conditions. So what that's resulted in is with the last five years, about a thirty percent reduction in the workforce, and as much as 50,000 railroad workers missing from the industry in the last decade.

It's not like there's less work to be done; that work is just being done by fewer people. Our bargaining process is governed under the RLA. It's been ongoing for about three years, and it's a long process. There's, there's some matrix for it, and it's ridiculous. It starts with section six notices, which are basically the demands of the carriers, which are the railroads, the carriers serve notice for their demands. Then the unions serve notice for their demands and then they go to work bargaining through this long process that culminated this past week in Congress, forcing us back to work under the terms of the tentative agreement.

Travis: So who came up with this tentative agreement? I mean, it seems for us who have sick leave, it seems like a pretty big hole in the agreement to not have sick leave. So, who came up with this tentative agreement, and was it more beneficial to workers or more beneficial to the rail bosses?

Ross: Excellent question. So backing up in the process to August. That was sort of the first inflection point. There was a moment where railroad workers could potentially strike. So there was some modest preparation work by rank and file members at the local levels to prepare for that.

In the meantime, the President, Joe Biden, can appoint a presidential emergency board. What that is, it's just a three person board that will look at both the union's arguments and the carriers' arguments, and then they'll make a determination about what should be the recommendation, a non-binding recommendation, for the contract. In this case, the railroad workers were asking for fifteen paid sick days, something which we had never had before in the history of our industry. And the carriers said, “nah, you don't deserve any.” And the Presidential Emergency Board looked at that and said, “yeah, you know what? The carriers are right.”

So this three person board of, you know, supposedly, probably, they're all attorneys or educators with law degrees, labor lawyers, labor professors, this three person group basically told workers “nah, you don't deserve it.” Then they came out with their recommendations in August. That's when [workers] said no. There was a whole bunch of other stuff in the agreement that was not acceptable for railroad workers, and that triggered a 30 day cooling off period ending on September 18th.

At that point you had sort of this emergency powwow with union leaders and congressional members and Joe Biden's labor secretary, Marty Walsh. Supposedly a big deal that he was a card carrying union member at one point, but they negotiated out these sweeteners, right? They negotiated out like, oh, we're going to give the workers something, right? So, I think what they came up with is like a birthday holiday, which can be used as a personal leave day. And then that may have been in the peb I can't remember now, it's kind of blurred together, the three days off unpaid, that won't count against these draconian discipline policies that the railroads have enacted to keep workers working more.

So three days that have to be scheduled 30 days in advance on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. Yeah, so not really even sick days, just kind of unpaid days. Established medical appointments that you'd, so you could probably use it to go to the dentist or the eye doctor or something like that. Routine care.

Travis: Not for if you're sick.

Ross: Yeah. I mean, you can't schedule if you're gonna be sick 30 days out, right? Like that, that's not possible. I mean, call up the boss and say, yeah, 30 days from now, “I'm sorry, I got the flu.” It just doesn't work that way. So you know, there was some other, I'm trying to remember what else, I mean, just ridiculous frill around the edges. I wouldn't even call it a bow. Like they didn't even put a bow on the package. They tied it, with the twine you get… And so there was a lot of discontent, and what you had out of that is you had union leaders trying to rally everybody and share details of the agreement.

Although really, union leadership was very slow to roll out this process. They didn't share the agreement right away for some reason. It took a while to get it out there. And then there's a question and answer period that lasted several weeks. It took more than six. It took a month for sure. I think it took close to six [weeks] to get a copy of that. Let's see, September 18th that was agreed to. I didn't get my ballot till the first week of November.

Travis: Wow.

Ross: So throughout that process you had union leadership trying to rally the troops and explain this agreement.

And of course, what they were explaining were all the things that were supposed to be beneficial and trying to kind of conceal or not mention the things that may not have been in our interest. Throughout that process, Railroad Workers United, which is an organization that's been around for about 15 years that I co-chair, got the agreement, read through it, put together some documents, tried to get out factual information about the agreement. We've been doing this throughout the process, right? We did the same thing for the PEB. We tried to share facts about the PEB with folks and, and kind of let folks make their own decisions.

Well, finally this agreement comes out and we're just like, no, this is not acceptable. This is not going to get at the root issue on the railroad. This isn't gonna correct the problem that we have of inadequate staffing! So what you had is rail unions slowly getting out their TAs and, and taking votes. And at the end of that process, you had four rail unions representing 55% of membership that said no. Those folks deserve a huge, huge amount of credit for standing up and saying, enough is enough. And even among the other eight who did ratify you had very close voting margins, or in some cases two and even three, I believe tentative agreements proposed in order to get it passed.

So then it sort of gets extended. All throughout this process there's these strike dates built into the RLA. All throughout this process, you've got union leadership kicking the can down the road, as far as a strike date, they just agree to an additional cooling off period. I can't think of any other reason for continuing to extend the cooling off periods other than there was no plan or no intention, no credible threat of a strike. And that's really hard to share because I mean, that's not something I want the public to know, but it's, the sad, hard truth is that at no point during this process was there ever a credible strike threat, and the carriers knew that, right?

They always had this backstop in Congress and that was the union strategy. It was to get to the Biden administration and then put all of the eggs in the Joe Biden basket and rely on Joe Biden to get this thing across the finish line for us. We always knew that Congress was going to force us back. We just didn't know when, and under what terms. That's the process under the RLA.

So in the meantime, you've got rank and file workers that are kind of raising the issues and they're starting to get the public's attention, right? Like all of a sudden people are like, “what, what the fuck's going on on the railroad? I thought that was a good job,” right? You had people, and I give a lot of credit to the Brotherhood of Maintenance and Way, the BMWED, they're part of the Teamsters Rail caucus, they did a good job of getting out there and trying to lift up demands and have some public rallies and kind of get people's attention to this thing.

It wasn't perfect, but they kind of landed on this idea of like, well, okay, let's ask for more. What can we ask for? And, the demand they landed on was the seven sick days. Granted, that's not that's not actually probably what is most upsetting railroad workers, but it was sort of a stand in for that quality of life. It was sort of a stand in for the fact that we are being worked harder and, and can't live lives outside the railroad. You had them make some connections in Congress and, and push that through some legislators who took up our issue. They're like, “yeah, this makes sense, why don't railroad workers have sick time? Doesn't make sense.”

So then last monday of November, you had Joe Biden come out with a very public statement that said “thanks, but no thanks” for railroad workers. “Union leadership fairly bargained this process and came up with this great agreement way back in September, and that's what you all deserve.” So Joe Biden, quote unquote most labor friendly president in history or since FDR or whatever, Joe Biden said, “thanks, but no thanks,” just like the Peb did, and chose to push this thing through Congress before the end of a cooling off. We're, keep in mind, we're in a cooling off period until December 9th at this point when this was happening, they chose to push this thing through Congress and say, “you know what? They're too important. The economy's too important. We can't have this, we gotta put 'em back to work.”

He could have done so with seven paid sick days. Easily could have done so. And, and you asked earlier what the carriers thought of this agreement? When this deal was brokered clear back on September 18th, they were faster than the unions to get out there and say, “great, this thing's done. We really appreciate the bargaining process. We're happy to have this all behind us.” Clear back in September, the carriers were like, “eh, yeah, we're, we're good. Thanks.” You can read what you want into that. I've heard some people in leadership try to tell me that the railroads weren't happy, but very publicly, they were happy.

So I mean, I guess I take what they say at face value. I think they got more or less what they had hoped to get out of it.

And so we did not [get what we wanted], and that process went to Congress for a vote. There was some political maneuvering, which I'm not even gonna pretend to understand all the details there, but basically we had two votes. One was to force us back to work under the Tentative Agreement. The other was to give us seven paid sick days. The House of Representatives passed the paid sick time and put us back to work, and sent it to the Senate. The Senate then took up the same vote again, passed the measure to put us back to work. Voted 52, 4 and 43 against that, we should have paid sick time. And for listeners that don't know, you're thinking, oh, great, you know, 52, 43 more points for the home team. Yay. I tried to explain this to a coworker the other day. His reaction was, “oh, okay, we got it then.” And then I had to say, “no, there's this thing called the filibuster. You gotta get 60 votes to pass this thing.” And he says, “oh, well, if their job is to make me lose faith in democracy, they sure are doing a good job.”

So that's kind of where we're at. The contract has been imposed upon us as it was determined on September 18th in this marathon, 20 hour negotiating session, which I can tell you on the railroad, I've had a lot of 20 hour days.

Travis: I want to back up a little bit to the meat of what we're fighting for and how that affects rail workers. We talked about not having sick leave. And we've talked about what you just said, you know, you've had plenty of 20 hour days. I'm not sure that everybody has worked 20 hour days or has had to take sick time when you don't actually have sick time. So what does it look like when you get sick and you don't have sick time? How does that affect you as a rail worker?

Ross: Yeah, this is, this is a good question.

I've worked for the railroad now 19 years, and when I first hired out for the railroad, we could largely self-manage our care, and they had adequate staffing so that if somebody was sick or needed time off for any reason, they could call and say, “Hey, yeah, we I need time off, lay me off,” and you tell 'em when you were ready to come back to work.

Well, eventually that, you know, became a 24 hour automatic markup, which, okay, at least I can still kind of chart my own course a little bit, right? So keep in mind all along, we're working 24/7, 365 days a year on call. About 80% of the freight industry works that way when it comes to the operating crafts.

So we don't have weekends, we don't have scheduled days off. If you only have two years of seniority, you might have 19 paid days for two years and that’s all the time off you might get during a calendar year. So we used to have the personnel to be able to sort of self-manage and take that time off when we needed it.

Then fast forward, you've got precision scheduled railroading and the cuts in the labor force. And then multiple carriers enact these very draconian attendance policies that assign a points total. It becomes this whole matrix where, If you're gonna take time off on the weekend or a holiday, it's gonna cost you more points. Then it depends on what board you're on, and all this. It's a convoluted thing, but what it amounts to is it's not enough time off and it is completely because the railroads have cut so many people that they're trying to make the personnel, the manpower, they have fit the operating model.

So what, what it means now is you go to work sick or, or you miss out on your kid's birthday or whatever the case may be.


So if you wake up with the flu tomorrow, you've gotta choose between staying home and being penalized, potentially to the point of losing your job if you're taking too much time off or you've gotta go to work and operate a train you know, or whatever equipment you've gotta operate with the flu.

Ross: Yeah. Yep. Yep.

Travis: Wow.

Ross: Yeah, I mean, I mean, this makes sense, right? To force employees to operate. I mean, a locomotive is more than 200 tons. A rail car unloaded is 30 tons and, and loaded is 140 tons plus. We're around dangerous rolling equipment. And oh, by the way, the maintenance personnel has been slashed too. The car department inspecting and fixing cars has been slashed too. The locomotive mechanics, the diesel mechanics that are repairing the locomotives, they've been slashed too, right? So it really is brewing this perfect storm where it's creating an increase in derailments, an increase in injuries, an increase in fatalities.

We've seen a brother on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe in southeast Iowa knew he was having issues and didn't go to the doctor because of these attendance policies and died of a heart attack. So what the railroad is doing is literally killing their employees and what they've determined is that's okay, as long as we're continuing to make money.

And let me tell you, the railroads make money. They make gobs of money. They bought back 200 billion dollars in stock. You know, just 2% of that would pay for the sick days we're trying to get. They net record profits quarter after quarter after quarter. I think the third quarter of this year the class one railroads, I know it was over 10 billion in net profits in one quarter. They, the railroad executives, the board of directors, the investors, have, they're cashing out. Wall Street is treating this thing like a bank and selling it off and, and just extracting wealth from the freight industry and it's at our expense. They've done that dollar calculation, right? The brother on the BNSF who died of a heart attack, they sat down and calculated what that was worth and, they determined that it was more worth it to risk their own employees than it is to take care of us.

Travis: Reduced to a line item cost benefit analysis.

Ross: Right

Travis: Wow.

So coming back to, now that we've established what we're actually talking about in real terms, what does the future of struggle look like? You know, for rail workers. Now that this has passed some people are like, “oh, well it's over, we gotta wait until such and such times.” What's going on that work?

Ross: It doesn't stop. So we have 23 months until we serve section six notices again and start this bargaining process all over again because the contract process drew out for three years. That that process doesn't wait for that.

If we're going to win, we need to change the way we're doing things, and that needs to happen by continuing to fight and organize today. Railroad Workers United, the organization I co-chair, is still working on formulating what the path forward is, but there are all kinds of things that we can do differently that we left on the table that the rank and file and our unions did not take up in doing this round of bargaining.

In the immediate term, it looked like paid sick leave was a pretty good demand. That's one to keep pushing for. And you know what? It's not just railroad workers that need paid sick leave. It's all workers. So why don't we organize and figure out a way to lift this up for everyone in this country, not just railroad workers. So that's, that's one thing in the short term that we want to continue to keep organizing and fighting around.

More long term? Railroad Workers United passed a resolution here in recent months. We have been talking about it for years and as a part of this struggle in identifying that we weren't getting the leverage we need in negotiations, we decided, it is time. And we put out a statement and a resolution and a press release calling for the nationalization of freight railroads. Not really, as Bernie Sanders would say, not a radical idea. Our interstate highways, our airports, our seaports are all public infrastructure. It's time the railroads in this country were operated as the public infrastructure they are, and the public infrastructure they're operated as around the world in almost every country except for this one.

So those are kind of where we're looking towards the struggle. But listen, there are no shortcuts. I talked about how we weren't prepared and we weren't organized, and the strike threat was kicked down the road. We've gotta organize inside our union. We've gotta organize outside and make connections outside our union, and Railroad Workers United, I feel like, has done a pretty good job of doing this in, especially, in recent months.

In 2015 we held health and safety conferences across the country in the Pacific Northwest and in the San Francisco Bay area. And we had one in Chicago. And so we had these health and safety conferences, and it wasn't just railroad workers. We were connecting environmentalists and other unions to our struggles. And you know what we learned? First off, we learned with labor, we're all facing the same working conditions. And then with environmentalists, we learned that we have a common interest here.

We can organize around these things together. And so that work has been done at, at RWU for, for a long time and really accelerated in the last couple months here as a part of this struggle. And that's gotta continue, and the possibilities there are are really exciting. It's a chance to bring working class people together and fight for some common things that will benefit all of us, and I'm really excited about this work.

We're at the finish line as far as this tentative agreement goes. It is a contract that is imposed on us by law, but we're running through the finish line and we're gonna keep going.

Travis: So who, who all can join RWU?

Ross: So Railroad Workers United is a rank and file caucus of members across 12 different railroad crafts, but we also have solidarity members. So our allies, for instance, when we organize with environmental workers, we have people like the labor network for sustainability who are solidarity members with us. So anybody can join RWU as a solidarity member for $25 annually. That'll get you a great quarterly newsletter that we put out that talks about the issues that we're facing in the rail, and it keeps you connected to this struggle and to what we're doing.

railroadworkersunited.org That's where you can find us on the web. You can find us on Twitter at @railroadworkers.

And, if you're looking to connect with myself personally, you can find me on the bird app at @RossGrooters.

Travis: What else can non rail workers do to support rail workers?

Ross: It's a great question. It's one I've been getting quite a bit, bit in recent months.

Keep organizing. I know that there's been some great work across the country in particular from DSA which has done great work organizing events across the country. They've done some solidarity rallies drawing attention to our issues to the paid sick time issue pointing to the people in politics that prevented that from happening, calling out the rail carriers.

Anybody can work with Railroad Workers United to create an event near you. There's rail yards all across this country. If people are wanting to get connected, the place to do that is Railroad Workers United. And I believe we put out a statement just today. Kind of calling for this, right?

We, we want to have, continue to have informational pickets and mass rallies across the country to keep this alive and to keep these issues before people. My dream or my vision is that it's not just paid sick time for railroad workers. It's paid sick time for all workers.

Travis: Awesome. That sounds like a good vision to get behind.

So Ross, is there anything else that you would like to say before we get off tonight?

Ross: Only I have anything other than thanks for having me, Travis.

Travis: I know you've been on a lot of places last few days and then you're still working full time in the conditions that we spoke about earlier, so I really appreciate you making the time for me.

*Note from Travis: At the time of this writing there is a planned union led action in Des Moines, Iowa on Tuesday 12/13/22 1-2 pm on the Iowa State Capitol grounds at the West Capitol Terrace. Edna Griffin School encourages all able to attend

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