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A Gillette railroad union leader says agreement between major freight railroads and rail unions is a start

rail yard
The Union Pacific's Bailey Yard in North Platte, Neb. is the world's largest classification yard and handles freight traveling to points across North America. An tentative agreement was struck on Sept. that avoided a nationwide rail workers strike, which was expected to cost the U.S. economy around $2 billion per day.

A tentative agreement was struck between railroad companies and railroad workers after a 20-hour long marathon negotiating session on Sept. 15. The agreement, for now, avoids a nationwide freight rail strike that would have brought both freight and passenger trains to a standstill. It would have, also, impacted Amtrak on most of its network as the majority of its routes are operated over the tracks of freight railroads.

Kevin Knutson is a Gillette-based conductor and union leader. He said he’s happy with the agreement.

“We wanted some relief from the attendance policies that we were being held to,” he said. “And it seems like we have gotten some relief, and it is good. That's why I say I don't think you're going to see a strike. I'm also hearing that we probably won't see it sent out for ratification until after the midterms. Again, you know, a lot of political stuff going on within this whole thing.”

The agreement comes after two years of negotiations between the railroads and unions representing railroad workers. It’s a tentative agreement that gives 100,000 rail workers a 24 percent increase in pay over the next five years and also addresses attendance policies that have drawn heated criticism from workers and unions as being draconian.

“We were holding out for our working rules,” Knutson said. “Basically, the attendance policies and a little bit more relief on being able to take time off for being sick.”

Knutson added that all of the major Class I railroads have an attendance policy in some form. Backlash against the policies has led to thousands of workers quitting their jobs. Some of the biggest complaints are that it makes a work-life balance that much more difficult in an industry that already provides irregular schedules for many workers.

“I’m glad this has been taken care of, [its] kind of a relief actually,” he said. “We never want to go on strike, we never want to do that. We would rather just get things signed and move on.”

President Joe Biden applauded the agreement, saying it’s a win for both workers and railroads.

“This is a win for tens of thousands of workers and for the dignity of their work,” Biden said at a press conference. "They earned and deserve these benefits, and this is a great deal for both sides.”

Cost-cutting measures over the past several years have decreased the number of workers that railroads employ in an effort to become more efficient. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic added significant stresses to the railroads at a time when shipping increased, though a reduced workforce led to manpower shortages and increased demand on existing workers. This led to stricter attendance policies, which were aimed at reducing time off, Knutson said.

Another major aspect of the agreement directly addresses the criticized attendance policies. Under the agreement, workers will be able to take time off for medical care without facing disciplinary action, Knutson said.

“In the past, if we took that time off, and we didn't use paid days, like a vacation day or personal leave days, those days would be counted against us on our attendance policy, they would be held against us,” he said. “From what I'm understanding, days like that will no longer be held against us if we don't have any vacation time or personal leave time.”

Knutson said much of the blame lies with the railroads and what they’ve done in previous months and years and how they approached the situation.

“I would say this wouldn't have gotten this far had the Class I railroads instituted a policy that was more fair to the employees that were working,” he said.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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