Railroad worker strike blocked by US court

A crucial labor battle is currently unfolding between railroad workers and BNSF Railway, the largest freight railroad network in North America. Earlier in January, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD), which together represent roughly 17,000 railroad workers, initiated steps to prepare for a strike that would have begun on the Feb. 1. This would comprise the largest railway strike in recent memory, and the unions have cited as the main point of contention a new BNSF scheduling and availability policy that workers say will separate them from their families and make it next to impossible to live and reasonably plan their lives. BLET National President Dennis Pierce and SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson called BNSF’s so-called “Hi-Viz” policy “the worst and most egregious attendance policy ever adopted by any rail carrier.”

However, on Tuesday, Jan. 25, a US District Court judge granted BNSF a temporary restraining order blocking the two unions from striking, saying that a strike would cause the rail company “substantial, immediate and irreparable harm.” In this interview, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with retired railroad worker and union leader Jeff Kurtz about BNSF’s “Hi-Viz” policy and why workers in the railroad industry are prepared to strike.

Jeff Kurtz was a railway engineer and union member for 40 years. He served as a union officer most of his career, including eight years as president of BLET Local 391 and chairman of the BLET Iowa State Legislative Board, where he oversaw safety and legislative matters for the union in the state for four railroads for 10 years. He retired in 2014 and served as state representative for one term in the Iowa House after winning the 2018 election in his House district. He now works in a volunteer capacity with Railroad Workers United and the local labor chapter of the Iowa Federation of Labor.

Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome everyone to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have y’all with us. Now, you may not have heard much about it in the mainstream media, but a crucial labor battle is currently unfolding between railway workers and the company BNSF Railway, which happens to be the largest freight railroad network in North America. Earlier in January, the Brotherhood Of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, or the BLET, and the transportation division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, or SMART TD, which together represent roughly 17,000 railroad workers, initiated steps to prepare for a strike that would have begun on Feb. 1. This would comprise the largest railway strike in recent memory. And the unions have cited as the main point of contention a new company scheduling an availability policy that workers say will separate them from their families and make it next to impossible to live and reasonably plan their lives. In response to the BNSF’s announcement of its so-called Hi-Viz attendance policy, BLET national president Dennis Pierce and SMART TD president Jeremy Ferguson called it, “The worst and most egregious attendance policy ever adopted by any rail carrier.”

And they continue, “This unprecedented BNSF policy repudiates direct and clear contract language, and in application, will attempt to force our members to report for duty without regard for their medical condition as we struggle to come out of a pandemic. It also stands to take away any ability by our members to avoid working fatigued when they are routinely called without warning due to the complete lack of reliable train lineups, thus creating the potential for an even more unsafe railroad operation. So-called forced overtime in an industry where safety is so critical not only repudiates our agreements, it stands to enact irreparable harm on hundreds of full-time employees whose non-workplace obligations prevent them from being at work every day of their life.”

But that’s not all. On Tuesday, Jan. 25, a US district judge granted BNSF, which is based in Fort Worth, Texas, a temporary restraining order blocking the two unions from striking, saying that a strike would cause the rail company “substantial, immediate, and irreparable harm.”

To talk about all of this and more, I’m honored to be joined by my guest today, Jeff Kurtz. Now, Jeff was a 40 year railway employee and union member. He was a union officer most of his career, including eight years as president of BLET Local 391, and chairman of the BLET Iowa State Legislative Board overseeing safety and legislative matters for the union in the state for four railroads for 10 years. He retired in 2014 and served as state representative for one term in the Iowa House after winning the 2018 election in his House district. He now works in a volunteer capacity with Railway Workers United and the local labor chapter of the Iowa Federation of Labor. Jeff, thank you so much for joining me today.

Jeff Kurtz:     Thank you for having me Max.

Maximillian Alvarez: And I just want to give viewers a quick caveat. We understand that this is a complex issue and we’re going to try to walk you through it here with Jeff’s help. But we’re also recording this on Friday, Jan. 28, so by the time you watch this there may be more developments in the story. We know that the unions are going to try to fight back against this temporary restraining order. So please keep checking up on this story as it develops, and we’ll do our best on this end to bring you continued coverage in the coming weeks and months.

Also, I wanted to mention that a lot of current employees working at BNSF are wary of speaking with the press out of fear of retaliation from their employer. We are working on bringing y’all more voices from rank and file workers through our podcasts and text articles where we can better protect people’s identities because we are very mindful of workers’ concerns.

And that is also why I’m so grateful to be joined by Jeff today. Because, as a retiree, he is able to speak more freely on these issues and, I think, can give us a lot of crucial insight into this Hi-Viz attendance policy, why it is such a problem for workers, and what it actually says about the railroad industry today.

So Jeff, with all of that in mind, I wanted to turn things over to you and ask if you could walk viewers and listeners through what this Hi-Viz policy actually is, what it will mean for workers and their families, and why the unions are so opposed to it.

Jeff Kurtz:   Well, yes Max. The thing that people need to realize about what engineers and conductors do especially, most jobs are jobs that you go to work with only an hour and a half or two hours of notice. So when the phone rings, you’ve got to be packed and ready to go. And that can happen at 2:00 in the morning, it can happen at 2:00 in the afternoon, and all times in between.

When I first hired out and I checked with the local chairman, which is the equivalent of a chief steward today, to make sure that this was still valid. But when I hired out and still today in contract language it states that the rail carrier will carry enough employees to allow sufficient layoffs for our engineers and conductors. As time has gone on, they’ve been squeezing that shorter and shorter. It used to be where we could take up to nine days off, then it went to three days. Now with the Hi-Viz policy it’s beginning to look like they’re only going to be able to take off a couple of times out of the year to be safe and not lose their jobs.

What these guys are afraid of is we have lineups that we kind of run our lives by. So say you’re five times out. The fifth train is supposed to arrive at say 5:00 in the morning. Well, things happen in the rail industry. And you might get a call to go to work at 9 or 10 at night with no sleep whatsoever. You fix yourself a thermos of coffee and hope for the best. Or the opposite could happen where you are supposed to go to work at, say, midnight. So you go to bed early and you wake up every hour wondering why you haven’t been called. Pretty soon it’s 6:00 in the morning and you feel like you fought Mike Tyson all night. And you wake up and still no call. And it could be something like a derailment. It could be a bridge out. It could be a lot of things. But the lineups aren’t that good.

So the Hi-Viz business policy is going to allow you 30 points. You start out with 30 points and you accumulate four points every 14 days. But you have to stay available for duty. And most of these guys, especially out of this terminal, will be gone from home probably in the area of somewhere around 100 hours, maybe when it’s busy even more, a week. So to not allow them to take off for weddings, for kids being sick, for unexpected emergencies, it’s expecting way too much. And in fact I’ve told people, reading this Hi-Viz policy, being away from the railroad so long reading it, it looks like it was written by a cadre of sociopaths. That they have no idea what they’re doing, and furthermore they don’t care.

Maximillian Alvarez: Right. And I mean I think that’s a really apt way to describe it. Because for this kind of policy to make sense you really have to only see your employees as these sort of meat bags who are perpetually at your beck and call every hour of the day but they don’t have lives and family of their own that you have to be concerned about. And just to put a fine point on what you said, Jeff, and we will include some links in the show notes for the description for this interview. But this Hi-Viz policy does, as you said, it gives workers a certain allotment of points and if they take days off for whatever reason, they get points knocked off. And if you get so many points knocked off, you lose your job. And as I understand it, workers get more points taken off if they take certain days off on certain days of the week. And that includes unexpected illnesses, family emergencies, all those things that happen to you when you’re a human being with a messy life, like all of us are.

But when you formalize this kind of policy, you really put all of the burden on the worker to basically do whatever they possibly can to make themselves available with these sorts of fluctuating schedules and derailments and all these sorts of things that you can’t really plan around, like you were saying. And even just hearing you talk about that made me realize that there’s just so much about what railroad workers do on a week-to-week basis and so much about the railroad industry as a whole that we just don’t really know about. I mean, we do a lot of worker coverage here at The Real News. We’ve talked to workers in manufacturing, in coal mining, hospitality workers. We’ve talked to workers at Starbucks and in higher education. And I feel like viewers and listeners generally have more of a sense of what goes on in those different workplaces.

But yeah, I don’t know. I have to imagine that, like me, a lot of folks don’t really know what railway workers go through on a week-to-week basis like yourself when you were working so many years as a railroad engineer. And I was wondering if you could take a moment to actually expand on that a little bit. I know that you said you retired in 2014, but could you say a little more for viewers and listeners about what a “typical” week would look like for you or what sorts of things you’ll deal with as a railroad worker that maybe the general public doesn’t see or doesn’t think about?

Jeff Kurtz:      Sure. And to go back to what you were talking about as far as the point system and everything, one thing that people need to realize with this point system is the railroad can declare any day, just decide two weeks from now or even three days from now, that this day is going to be a high impact day. So instead of taking two or three points off, they’ll take seven points off. Say your cell phone goes out. You miss a call. I just found out when I talked to our local chairman, the guy that’s like the chief steward, they’re going to take 15 points off. That’s half your job.

And the way the railroad writes these policies, they’re intentionally vague to make it hard to defend yourself against. So I just wanted to qualify what you talked about there. But as far as a typical week, there’s no such thing as a typical week. And I’ll use a current example. This happened back in November, and this is actually something that I worked on from 2009 on to 2015. Since I hadn’t been working, I hadn’t heard about the situation happening that much. But what happened is we had, 10 miles from my house on the BNSF, it’s called the K line, we had a collision between a train and a barge. And how that happened, the barge was on the Mississippi River. The right of way is right on the river. The barge did a maneuver they call pushing in, and they did this on a curve. And they did it, this place is out in the middle of nowhere, so there’s no lighting or anything like that. They pushed in on this curve. So the train crew, luckily they were only going 30 miles an hour, but they had a 19,000 ton coal train. They were going 30 miles an hour around that curve, they hit that 20,000 ton barge at 30 miles an hour.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around how these guys made it out of there alive. The locomotive went on its side. It skidded. The 19,000 tons of coal was shoving it. And the cab of the locomotive filled up with ballast along the right-of-way. These guys could not get out the door. They had to get out the window that is normally on the side of the engineer. It was above him, and they helped each other get out. Like I said, it’s just amazing that they got out.

But another thing about this, if that would not have been a coal train. If that would’ve been a hazmat train, like I told the sheriff around here, it would’ve been a bad week for you, Stacy, because you may have been pulling bodies out of Montrose, Iowa, for a week. Because some of the nasty stuff that is hauled by the railroads, it could definitely kill probably at least several hundred people around there, maybe all 1,000 people that live in that area. And not only that. It probably, if it was a hazmat train, could have killed a substantial portion of the Mississippi river.

That’s just something that happened recently. Before I retired, I was involved in a crossing accident. It was, I think, eight months before I retired. I hit a big road grader that had a big plow on the blades. And we hit him somewhere around 50 miles an hour. He ran the crossing gates. And right there, I thought we were dead. Because I thought when we hit he would roll up into the cab and those blades would slice me and the conductor up.

He happened to move just right before I hit him. So I got his rear end and spun him around. And when you’re involved in a crossing accident like that, there’s seven or eight things that you have to do. You have to notify oncoming trains, you have to notify the dispatcher, have them get a hold of law enforcement, give location, things like that.

So I’m in the middle of doing all this stuff. We finally stopped, and I looked over at my conductor. And he’s 24 years old, I think he’d hired out two months before. And he was paralyzed. His hands had a death grip on the door handle. I don’t know why he was gripping the door handle, but he had a death grip on it. And I told him, I said, I’ve been involved in seven of these now. And I understand that this is pretty traumatic, but I need you now. You have to get out there, go back to the scene of the accident, make sure this guy’s all right. I’ve got to call law enforcement. I’ve got to communicate with trains and stuff like that. I’ve got to stay up here. So you’ve got to go down there.

And he did his job. And he recovered. I can’t say enough good things about this young man. But that night, it didn’t bother me after I got home. This happened about 10:00 in the morning. I finally got home probably about 4:00 in the afternoon. And that was after I’d been on duty 16 or 17 hours. We could only work 12 hours, but it took me another five hours to get to my terminal.

So that night, I went to bed. And apparently, that triggered something in me because I dreamt about all seven crossing accidents that I’d had during my career. It was just a movie that went through. I woke up at 2:00 in the morning and I didn’t get back to sleep. But that’s an occupational hazard. A lot of conductors and engineers have some form of PTSD. A good friend of mine killed four teenagers. He’s 70 years old. That still bothers him to this day. We still talk about that. So I’ve got a mild form of it. He’s got a more severe form of it.

Maximillian Alvarez: And even just the one example that you gave is so telling. Because like you’re saying, if you’re driving a multi, multi ton engine with all this cargo behind it and someone enters the crossing, you can’t just stop on a dime. And I can only imagine how terrifying that situation must be if you’re the engineer.

But even just hearing you talk about that and hearing you describe all the different things that you have to do in those circumstances, it gives viewers, listeners, and people like me just a little clue of how complex this whole railroad ecosystem actually is. I mean, if you’re flying planes in the sky, that’s also super complex, and there’s so many different types of vehicles in the air at any given time. But you also have a little more movability. I mean, you’re not physically stuck on a single track with people coming up behind you on the exact same track. I mean, I’m being kind of reductive here, but you guys get the point.

And I’m also just thinking about how all of that plays into this Hi-Viz policy and how it could potentially increase the likelihood, God forbid, of accidents like the ones that you’ve described. Because even when you have seasoned veterans like yourself, months away from retirement, there’s always stuff that you can’t predict. Even if you are the best at what you do and you know everything inside and out there are always things that you can’t account for. And if you force through this kind of policy that runs workers ragged, that doesn’t really allow them time to rest and recharge their batteries and deal with everything else in their lives, it’s like you’re asking for disaster.

So I guess what I’m really asking is, how did we get here? What does the institution of this Hi-Viz policy say about changes that have happened to the railroad industry over the past few decades? And did you see those changes taking effect while you were still working as an engineer?

Jeff Kurtz:            I was involved in an accident four months after I hired out, where it was the only time out of the seven accidents that somebody died. It was a woman that walked out in front of our train and that was pretty ugly. So anyway, I took a couple of days off after that because… And that happened in 1974, close to 48 years ago. I can see that right now just like it just happened yesterday. I mean, it just is there. But I was able to take off for a couple of days. I spent a lot of time with friends, with family. I wasn’t married at the time, but I had my mother and father around here. Brothers and a lot of friends. And I came back. I was fine.

And later on as I progressed in my career we still were allowed to do this. And I’d gotten married in 1979. In 1982 we had our second son. My wife was having all kinds of problems. She didn’t want me to go to work because if I went to work I was going to be gone for 40 hours and I might miss the birth of my second son. So I was able to take off nine days and be there with her when he was born. I was lucky that I was there for the birth of all three of my children. People can’t do that nowadays.

When the merger happened for the BNSF in 1996, that’s when things started to tighten up. And now, we’re only going to give you three days off. And we’re not necessarily going to let you lay off when you want. But if something bad happens you can take time off.

So fast forward from there to, I think it was 2010 when they really tightened things up. They had their attendance and availability policy that stated you had to be available for service 75% of the time and weekends counted more than weekdays. Things like that. Well, they still weren’t happy with that. So they instituted what they called a low hours performance policy.

And I was fortunate enough that I went to Washington DC in 2016 to testify about this low hours performance policy. And I was allowed to talk to 35 assistant regional administrators for OSHA about it. And the deputy of OSHA told me, he says, you’re going to get 10 minutes. I took 12 minutes. And basically, what low hours is, nobody knows. They just tell you, you have not worked enough hours, and they don’t define what enough hours is or anything. And what precipitated me going there was [that] I handled a case right before I retired of a gentleman that was available for service 23 out of 25 days, but he was nailed for low hours performance. Coincidentally, that was about a month… Let me see. It was about a month before that he had turned in a safety issue on their trip optimizer, which is like a cruise control. And they were not happy about that. And the next thing we know this guy gets nailed on low hours performance.

So when I was testifying I explained to him that low hours performance, there’s no parameters. It’s pretty much what the company says. And I went through my spiel. And after I got done, there were puzzled looks, and people looked like they wanted to talk. There was a young woman from Kansas City in the back, raised her hand tentatively and she said, can you go over again what low hours is? And I said, no, because I don’t understand it. They don’t have any parameters. Nobody understands. That opened the floodgates. We were there for over an hour. I was answering questions about attendance policies, pretty much what we’re talking about right now, how people mark off. And the deputy came up to me afterwards and he says, I would’ve never guessed you would be here that long.

They were OSHA, who is supposed to supervise some of this stuff. They got involved in the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act. Before that it was just the Federal Railroad Administration. But OSHA had no idea that this stuff went on. So I was lucky enough to testify in front of them. I testified in front of the Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee meeting, it was later on that day. And it was about the draconian policies. And now we’ve come up to Hi-Viz. And Hi-Viz, I explained this the other day to a person. I said, if you look at the businesses in the United States, if you look at them as capitalism, what you’re looking at now with the Hi-Viz policy with the railroads is more like feudalism. These employees exist solely for the benefit of management and the owners of the company. And that’s it. You have no life. Like I said before, this was written by a cadre of sociopaths as far as I’m concerned. This could be taken down from one word from CEO Katie Farmer of the BNSF or CEO Warren Buffett from Berkshire Hathaway. This could be done away with right now. But since they don’t want to, then I think that speaks volumes.

Maximillian Alvarez: No, I think you’re right. I think it absolutely speaks volumes. It’s telling too. And please tell me if I’m off base here, but this is how it sounds to me. In one way, this is something that we’ve been hearing from a lot of different workers in other industries. You mentioned the railroad accident that happened just a few miles away from you, and that it was a coal train. So immediately that made me think of the 1,100 striking coal miners in Alabama at Warrior Met Coal who have been on strike since April. April of last year. And I mean, I can just remember hearing from so many of these workers in the coverage that we’ve done at The Real News and elsewhere. I mean, they’re always talking about this new points based attendance policy that was forced upon union members in the last contract negotiation. Like you were saying about this new Hi-Viz attendance policy at BNSF, these coal miners at Warrior Met Coal said that their attendance policy is also very draconian. It really is feudalistic in the way that you’re talking about.

And you can hear that in these workers’ voices because they’re saying heartbreaking stuff like, we never get to see our families because we’re practically a mile underground. And if our spouse is having an emergency in the hospital, if we go up and go see them that’s points taken off our small tally. And if you reach a certain number of points off, you’re done. You’re fired. So obviously that’s going to have major impacts on how you conduct your life.

And this is to say nothing of the long hours doing backbreaking work. And workers there were working all week, day in, day out. Never really getting to go to tee-ball games, only getting to see their family members awake for maybe one hour out of the day. What kind of life is that? And that’s one of the main reasons that they’ve been on strike this whole time, probably the main reason they’ve been on strike this whole time.

And that’s something that I think people around the country can really identify with. We’ve heard it from healthcare workers, teachers. It’s also something we heard during the strikes last year at places like Frito-Lay and Nabisco and Kellogg’s. The ongoing strike at Rich Products in California, which we reported on recently. Workers are being pushed into forced overtime. They’re being worked to the bone and they’re breaking down. And this seems to be a very big problem that working people are facing in a number of different industries.

But on top of that we also have to think about the specificity of railroad work. I mean, like you were saying before, for many railroad workers you’re dealing with long hours, demanding work. But you also have to constantly make yourself available and adjust your life so that you can be available even with all of the disruptions and derailments and whatever else. You’re basically on call all the time. And that impacts how you sleep, what plans you can make with your friends and family, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So again, you’re basically at the beck and call of the railroads otherwise you’re going to get fired.

And that makes me realize something – And this is the long way of getting to my actual point – The thing is, a lot of companies have been trying to justify this kind of behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic by painting it as a necessary emergency measure. And this is what the court echoed when it granted this temporary restraining order that blocked workers from striking. With all the concerns right now about the supply chain and whatnot, the judge said that the 17,000 union railroad workers, that these workers, if they went on strike at the beginning of February, it would cause immediate and irreparable harm to BNSF because the company can’t afford that much disruption. And disruption is the point of a strike, but we’ll talk about that another time.

But here’s the thing is it’s like BNSF has also put itself in this position. I mean, they’ve been reducing staff numbers over the years, trying to basically get more productivity out of fewer people and expecting those people to be available all of the time. And now when those people threaten to go on strike, BNSF is out here acting like the victim. I mean, am I off base here?

Jeff Kurtz:   No, you’re really good with your evaluation of this. It goes even further than that. What happens – And we’ve noticed this. And this is why people like you don’t understand what goes on in the railroad industry. This kind of stuff isolates us. We’re at work all the time. We’re at work, we’re asleep, or we’re out in the middle of nowhere on a train trying to figure out how we’re going to do the work. And now with this Hi-Viz policy it’s going to actually penalize union leaders, so they can’t do their job. I love the characterization of the judge in that temporary restraining order, he talked about the fact that BNSF was going to be irreparably harmed and it was going to harm the supply chains. And he said absolutely nothing about the physical, mental, or emotional health of the workers that this was going to affect. And I thought, this is pretty telling. This is very telling.

And I’ve noticed from some of the people, in fact the one guy. I still communicate with these guys quite a bit. When I was a state rep I would take up their cause. I still would talk about a lot of things that they wouldn’t want to get in front of a camera and talk about. So I keep in contact with them. But I’ve noticed some of them, I can see the stress in them. They’re increasingly isolated because people don’t understand this, and they’re never going to understand because of the fact that your union leaders can’t defend their own people against this. The rail workers themselves aren’t available to talk to people like you.

Maximillian Alvarez: And I guess that brings me around to the final question. There are so many more things that I want to ask you about, but I don’t want to take liberties with your time. So we’re just going to have to bring you back on as the story develops.

But like I said at the top of the interview, earlier in January the unions had started to take steps towards potentially going on strike, a strike that would have begun on Feb. 1. Now, after the temporary restraining order by a court basically saying that the unions can’t strike, we’re kind of in limbo at this moment. And this by the way, dear Real News viewers and listeners, is something that we’ve been covering and will continue to cover. Because it’s a very serious issue, but one that goes sorely under reported.

If you recall, I did an interview with Dan Osborne from the BCTGM Local 50G down in Omaha during the Kellogg’s strike, and I interviewed him with Larry Spencer from the United Mine Workers down there in Alabama. And we talked to both of them a couple of months ago about different injunctions that they and their coworkers had faced. Injunctions that basically limited their First Amendment rights and workers’ ability to walk the picket line during their respective strikes. It happened at Warrior Met Coal, it happened at the Kellogg’s strike in Omaha. And I mean just recently, a week or so ago we heard of another cruel injunction in Wisconsin. That thankfully was overturned. But seven healthcare workers who had quit their jobs at one healthcare provider called ThedaCare, they had accepted jobs with another healthcare provider. But then ThedaCare basically went to the courts and asked them, as the former employer, to essentially block workers from starting their new jobs and staying at ThedaCare. And the judge granted that request. And again, thankfully that was overturned.

But I bring it up just to emphasize the fact that there is a really large problem with businesses being able to use and weaponize the courts to hurt workers, to hurt unions, to break strikes. So this is not just a problem that is happening to railroad workers, and we need to be aware of it. And we need to, I think, be in conversation with one another so we can better know how to fight it. And I promise that this is going to be a topic that we continue to cover here at The Real News.

So Jeff, I guess on that point. Again, we’re recording this at the very end of January. The strike was supposed to happen on the 1st of February. So we’re at a standstill right now and we’ll see where this goes. But for the reasons that you laid out a moment ago, because of the isolation that railroad workers endure due to the nature of the work that they do, clearly we need to take extra steps to build solidarity with our fellow workers out there on the railroads. So I wanted to ask you if you could tell viewers and listeners what they can do to show solidarity with railroad workers in general and what they can do to show support for those thousands of workers who are potentially going to go on strike.

Jeff Kurtz:        The big thing is pay attention. And that goes for any strike. When UAW struck John Deere, we really got into… I had some friends up in Ottumwa that worked the John Deere plant. We paid attention. I walked the picket line with them a couple of different times. We want to learn. In fact, I took some rail workers with me. The Iowa State Legislative Board, the present chairman and some of his members. We wanted to show solidarity. And we had no idea that this was going to happen with us.

But mainly, pay attention. The Iowa Federation of Labor, our president here in Iowa, he’s a wonderful guy. And we have started something down here in Lee County, Lee County, Iowa. It’s called the Iowa Dignity Project. What we did is we sent out surveys all over Lee County which is somewhere around 35, 37,000 people. We got 400 back listing some of the problems that working people are seeing in this county. Next month we’re doing one on wages and overtime. And Charlie Wishman, the president, I told him, I said, because we are having monthly press conferences with the Iowa Dignity Project. I said, I want to get up. And I want to talk about this issue. Because if it happens to us, it’s going to eventually happen to other workers.

And this is what we’ve seen. Some of the most egregious things that happened in the rail industry five, six years down the line started happening to other workers. Like working longer hours. And we had problems with the workers around here in our local labor chapter getting called in to go to work at odd times. So they’ve given me permission. I’m going to get up and I will probably be a raving lunatic for about 10 minutes at that press conference.

Maximillian Alvarez: Soapbox away my man.

Jeff Kurtz:                Thank you.

Maximillian Alvarez: So that is former Iowa state representative, 40-year railroad employee, union member, former union officer including eight years as president of BLET Local 94, and chairman of the BLET Iowa State Legislative Board, Jeff Kurtz. Jeff, thank you so much for talking to me today.

Jeff Kurtz:             Thank you so much for having me Max. And believe me, rail workers are just thrilled to death that people like you are covering this. So thank you so much.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, thanks man. I really do appreciate that. And to all of you watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez for The Real News Network. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for watching.

Maximillian Alvarez

Editor-in-Chief

Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
 
Email: max@therealnews.com
 
Follow: @maximillian_alv