With railroad companies refusing to offer employees a favorable contract, 115,000 rail workers could soon launch a nationwide strike. We spoke with a train engineer about the industry’s brutal working conditions — and why a strike could spread like wildfire.

A BNSF Railway classification yard in Denver, Colorado. (Acton Crawford / Unsplash)

Rail unions in the United States representing 115,000 workers have been locked in negotiations with rail carriers for over two years. This week, a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), convened by the Biden administration to intervene in the dispute, issued its recommendations for a settlement. The railroads have stated their support for the deal, so the outcome is now in the hands of the twelve unions that represent freight rail workers — as well as Congress, which could intervene to force a deal.

But many railworkers are opposed to the PEB recommendations, which they view as lopsided in favor of railroad companies. They point to their deteriorating working conditions — including inhumane schedules and “lean production” policies that pile on work and threaten their safety and that of the public  — and ask why they should accept givebacks when companies don’t even respect their labor. Indeed, in the PEB recommendations, the board reports that “the Carriers maintain that capital investment and risk are the reasons for their profits, not any contributions by labor.”

Some workers are now talking about a national strike — an action that that hasn’t occurred since 1991 and that could have massive economic and political effects during an election year and an uptick in labor activity.

In a conversation with Joe DeManuelle-Hall of Labor Notes, Iowa-based freight engineer Ross Grooters discussed how working conditions on the railroad have gotten worse, why he opposes the deal on the table, and what a national rail strike could look like in the United States.

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