“Tentative agreement” diverts labor unions from impending railroad strike

Railroad union workers have been anticipating the deadline of 12:01 a.m. on Sept 16, Eastern Standard Time. That’s 11:01 p.m. Sept 15, Central Time in Oklahoma.

Union workers and the railroad carriers have had last-minute meetings in Washington D.C. with the Secretary of Labor to see if both sides could come to an agreement on work policies before the deadline. These negotiations which have been centered around attendance policy, healthcare and pay, began in Nov. 2019.

Brian Cathey has worked in the railroad industry for 10 years and he has been a union representative for SMART Transportation Division for almost three years. He is a chairman representing the labor workers here in Tulsa and throughout the state of Oklahoma.

“We’ve been told that both sides have reached what we call a “tentative agreement.” What that entails is obviously an extension of any deadline that was looming. The big takeaway is that for now there won’t be any strikes or work stoppages on the freight railroads, while this tentative agreement is put out for ratification,” said Cathey. “Of course, we’re all happy that a strike didn’t happen. Nobody wanted to go without being paid, we don’t want to hurt this economy any worse.”

Cathey says that the railroad companies have agreed to certain provisions.

“We won’t know exactly what’s in it until the agreement is actually rolled out to the membership,” said Cathey. “Now, if that doesn’t happen, we kind of would be back to square one to where congressional involvement would be all that remains.”

Cathey says the new agreement should be available in just a matter of days.

The biggest issue during the negotiations has been the attendance policy.

“Those points are deducted from an initial 30-point threshold that never resets itself. They provide some provisions to earn points back, but it’s virtually impossible to do so because if you take any time off whether it’s contractually allowed or legally allowed by the Family Medical Leave Act or the Railroad Labor Act, they actually keep you from being able to earn those points back,” said Cathey.

Nationwide there are about 60,000 operating crafts and about 60,000 conductors and switchmen and engineers just within the Smart Transportation Division. There are several hundred railroad workers throughout the state of Oklahoma, according to Cathey.

“We move everything from paper pulp for newspaper places, to glass, to the intermodal that you do see which are going to contain a lot of your retail supplies within them. We do move just about everything. I mean Oklahoma is the central hub,” said Cathey. “There are people who have made a career and they’re hard workers. I mean, the job’s not easy. We work in the 110-degree heat and we work in the 10-degree windshield. We walk on uneven surfaces with nothing but pebbles beneath our feet while we walk a train that they’re making longer and longer in order to save more and more money.”

Cathey says many of the railroad workers are veterans.

“We know what it’s like to be away from our families and a lot of us made that sacrifice long before we got out here. That wasn’t something that was asked of us when we hired out again. This is something that they’ve changed along the way,” said Cathey.

There has been a significant pay raise issued to union workers due to the negotiations, but Cathey says that’s not enough.

The union rep describes this new attendance policy as “inhumane.” Cathey states that the union’s concerns are is the impact on mental health, safety, and fatigue.

“All our people are asking for is to have a livelihood, it’s not just about compensation,” said Cathey. “When you’re working for your family and you don’t see them, what good is that compensation?

Cathey says that there has been tremendous support from the community for union workers during these negotiations.

“I think people really kind of opened their eyes that we’re not the typical labor union, we’re not out there in people’s faces. We just want to move America’s freight, get it where it needs to go. But we want to do it with the same fairness that everybody else gets and deserves. And unfortunately, we have a process and they’ve brought it down to the very last step of the process, but hopefully, that process completes and we can move on,” said Cathey.

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