Bryan Mack is a second-generation railroad worker from Florence, South Carolina, with a Masters in Music Performance. Both Bryan and his father worked for CSX Transportation, each hiring out at times when there were statistically few Black employees or employees of color working on the railroads. For 17 years, Bryan has worked as a conductor for CSX; in that time, he has seen and experienced firsthand the worsening conditions as the industry has been taken over by greedy executives and upper-level managers hellbent on cutting costs and maximizing profits for their shareholders at the expense of workers, customers, and the public at large. As part of our continuing coverage of the crisis on the nation’s railroad system, we talk with Bryan about his life and work on the railroads, and about the good, bad, and ugly parts of the industry that outsiders may not see, including the discriminatory treatment that Bryan and other workers of color have faced on the job—up to CSX’s recent decision to fire him under dubious circumstances.
Additional links/info below…
- US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: “Know Your Rights: Workplace Discrimination is Illegal”
- Railroad Workers United website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- Eric Arnesen, Harvard University Press, Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality
- Mike L., The Real News Network, “A Carman’s Perspective on the East Palestine Derailment and the Railroad Industry as a Whole“
- Mel Buer, The Real News Network, “What Union Pacific and the Media Aren’t Telling You About the Baker, CA, Train Derailment“
- Mel Buer, The Real News Network, “Corporate Billionaires Are Wrecking the Supply Chain. Just Look at the Railroads“
- Working People, “Rail Workers of the World, Unite! (w/ Ross Grooters, Cat Cray, Clayton Clive, & Matthieu Bolle-Reddat)“
Permanent links below…
- Leave us a voicemail and we might play it on the show!
- Labor Radio / Podcast Network website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- In These Times website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- The Real News Network website, YouTube channel, podcast feeds, Facebook page, and Twitter page
Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemusicarchive.org)
- Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song
Post-production: Jules Taylor
Bryan Mack: My name is Bryan Mack. I’m from Florence, South Carolina. I had 17 years with CSX Transportation. I was a freight conductor. And I basically grew up here in town, of course, did other things. But my railroad training, of course, done other pursuits. But yes, I’ve had 17 years in the transportation business. And interests include, getting out, traveling, music, as well as cooking, fitness, and other things. But yes, I stand to make things better for the next generation in addition to just being a good, decent person and all, leaving behind good things for others.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you. Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network. So if you’re hungry for more worker and labor focus shows like ours, follow the link in the show notes and go check out the other great shows in our network. And please, support the work that we’re doing here at Working People so we can keep growing and keep bringing y’all more important conversations every single week. You can support us by leaving a positive review on Apple Podcasts, you can share these episodes on your social media, and share them with your friends, your coworkers, and your family members.
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My name is Maximillian Alvarez, and I am so grateful to have Bryan on the show today. As you guys know, we have been relentlessly covering the crisis on the nation’s freight railroads for well over a year now here on the podcast over at The Real News Network. And I’ve done some coverage on my segment at Breaking Points as well. And I’m sad to say that a lot of the things that we’ve been talking about with railroaders like Bryan over the past year and a half haven’t gone away.
We saw that in the catastrophe in East Palestine and we continue to see it in the derailments that are happening all over the country from Minnesota to California, but also just the day-to-day grind that workers are going through, the ways that Wall Street greed and cost-cutting, profit maximizing decisions made by corporate executives have translated to constant overwork, under staffing, trains that are probably twice as long as they should be twice as heavy as they should be. We’re in a real mess here, and if you guys have been listening to the show, you know pretty damn well how we got into that mess, because workers like Bryan, with so many accrued years of experience on the railroads, have been telling us left and right about this.
But it’s important that we don’t just say, okay, we know that now. Let’s move on. We need to stay committed to this. We need to stay committed to railroad workers until we start seeing some real improvements in this industry, not just for the sake of workers like Bryan themselves, and that should be enough, but also for all of our sakes. Again, I mentioned East Palestine. These are the stakes of the destruction, the corporate and Wall Street led destruction of the railroads. It’s all of our problem. These trains are passing through our neighborhoods, as the great Matt Weaver of Railroad Workers United told us on the show a couple weeks ago. These trains, they’re not passing through the backyards of the rich. They’re passing through our backyards. They’re passing next to our baseball fields and our schools and through our towns. And so, we all have a stake in this.
And so, I’m really, really excited to get a chance to talk to Bryan more about his life and his work and what these changes to the industry have looked like from his vantage point. But before we get there, Bryan, as I was telling you, as we love to do on the show, we like to take our time and walk our way through people’s back stories and learn more about them and how they came to be the people they are and how they came to do the work that they do. So you mentioned that you are a local boy, so you grew up in South Carolina.
Bryan Mack: Yes, I did. I grew up here.
Maximillian Alvarez: Okay, so do you got deep family roots over there?
Bryan Mack: Yes, I do have family from the area. And incidentally, the town where I’m from was actually based upon the old Wilmington and Manchester Railroad, which became a part of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad, which incidentally became the Seaboard Railroad, which is now the big conglomerate, as we know as CSX. And yes, my dad was an employee too of the company, as well as several other persons around the city, as well as friends that worked for the railroad.
Maximillian Alvarez: Wow, okay. Tell me a little more about that. So what was it like then growing up with your dad working for the railroad, and that just being a constant presence in the town that you grew up in.
Bryan Mack: Well, it’s interesting where we grew up, which was the North side of town, and my dad, just as a kid, my dad was a service attendant, and he was so close by the job and where our house, which they presently still live. If he had to be at work at 7:00, and if he left the house at 6:55 AM, he still would have enough time to spare before he actually had to punch the time clock. That’s how close we lived by the yard. And you could hear whether passenger movements or freight, or just even the switching of the conductors in the yard, you’ve heard it because the rail yard was so close. And the main line, which is the north-south route between Northeast Washington, well, New York, to Miami, Florida going into Florida, which ran right through town. You heard those trains every day, all day, 24 hours a day, good weather, bad weather. So yes, it was a part of the town’s makeup.
Maximillian Alvarez: So I have two questions here. One, how big was your family? Did you guys have a big family or were you an only kid?
Bryan Mack: Small. Small. It’s just my parents, my dad, mom, myself, and I have a younger brother.
Maximillian Alvarez: Okay. So I asked that because I was also going to ask, did you feel, like, a draw to the railroads? Was this something that you knew from an early age that you wanted to do as well? Or were you a rebellious teenager being like, nah, I don’t want to do what my dad’s doing. And then you find your way into it anyhow.
Bryan Mack: Well, I’m glad you asked that. Well, knowing in a back sick way, my dad when he was not… Well, my dad’s back was short a little bit, which ties into my involvement was my dad was a service attendant when they weren’t derailments, but when they had a derailment, which Florence was one of the main service points that used the Derrick Crane, they inherited the, was called the record. And you would take the mechanical personnel when the derailment happened and you would go and clean it up.
And my dad was the person that actually cooked for the crews and house people there. Then he started at 5:00 in the morning. He would go with the crew, and he had his own commissary with food, his own diner car. He was the cook and he fed the crews, townspeople, et cetera, so they could clean up the main line, wherever the derailment was at. So he was gone a lot of the time.
And when we would travel on a vacation with my family and I, he would point out a lot of where he would go. He would point out towns or different locales, and of course, I would see him when my grandmother, his mother, she would come home via Amtrak, and he would actually have to water the train. So of course, he would pick me up and then we’d go over to the station and I’d see him work. And of course, he’d be in his workwear, him getting my grandmother when she’d come in, train pulled in and get off, [go to speak to her]. My mom would come through, pick me up, take me back home. Of course, I got a chance to see that.
So I knew what was going on, but my story, I was a musician. And let’s just say, well, the luck of the draw of not fighting a job, you find your way back because of the stable income, and you knew the compensation was decent.
Maximillian Alvarez: What kind of music did you play?
Bryan Mack: I’m actually a tubist.
Maximillian Alvarez: Oh, hell, yeah. How’d you get into that?
Bryan Mack: Well, just going through high school, I can tell you this, I retained perfect pitch. And I started sixth grade, which it wasn’t really formalized in. And long story short, I was an alto saxophonist, or saxophonist for those who were exact, and I wasn’t really good at it, per se. But with me retaining perfect pitch and my band director in seventh grade decided, hey, try tuba for eighth grade. And sure enough, I locked in and played tuba, and it just sort of lined up and I studied music, actually.
I went on and studied music and did it as a way to look for an in, so to speak. But then sometimes, when you’re doing music and trying to break certain ceilings, there weren’t many people in it that look like me. So of course, you gotta look the other ways. And it was a fun route because the journey made me a better person. However, you still have to eat. And of course, that’s why I say stability and employment. I said, well, if it didn’t work all else, try the railroad.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, man. I’m always so fascinated by stories like this, and people who listen to the show will remember this because, it’s something that I was so envious about growing up, because you say you weren’t very good. Trust me, brother, you can’t be any worse than I am [both laugh] playing an instrument. And I wanted to understand music on that level so badly. And I remember I was the only one of my siblings who showed any interest in that. My sister did guitar – She’s 10 years younger than I am, and that was a lot later – But when it was just me and my two brothers, my mom was constantly trying to pass off her old high school flute to one of us. And it didn’t take with my brother Jesse, didn’t take with Zach. And so, I showed some interest, and she had this big ceremony of taking her old flute down in the closet, giving it to me, and I just couldn’t play it for shit.
And I tried [laughs], I couldn’t read music, and my poor junior high teacher, bless her, was just like, okay, this kid sucks but he clearly means well. So I was always fascinated by people who could play music and also make music. And I’m always so interested when I talk to folks like you about how music ends up becoming this vector through which people find their paths in life.
Just one example, I remember talking to these two great longshore workers out in Tacoma, Washington, Zack and Skiff, and their dads both worked on the docks as Longshore workers, so their families knew each other. But both Zack and Skiff, they got into punk music, and it was through touring with a punk band that they ended up coming into contact with each other. They became friends, and then they ended up going back to work on the docks together. And now they’re best friends. They lead the Young Workers Caucus in the ILWU. But that wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t taken that detour through music when they were young. So in retrospect, it all works out.
Bryan Mack: Right, right. Absolutely.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and so you mentioned something that was really interesting. Where you said, understandably, and this is something that hits home for me as well, that when you look like we do, depending on when you grew up, where you grew up, certain paths are going to be open to you and certain paths aren’t.
And I remember interviewing another fellow, railroader, Marilee Taylor, back in the fall when we were in the midst of the contract fight, potentially approaching a national rail shut down. And Marilee told me about what it was like to be a woman conductor, or she was an engineer, at a time when there weren’t many women engineers. And I was going to ask that about you and your dad. Did it feel then like the railroads were a little more open to you?
Bryan Mack: Well, to answer a question about having a female employee, I received a book about the first Union Pacific engineer of color, and I was looking at the book and I read, and it was a very good book. Interesting. And I know the lady, I think she lives out I think Nebraska or someplace. Well, incidentally, I worked with a colleague, and she actually is still with CSX. She actually went back home, and we’d actually worked together. And she was a woman of color who was one on the division – I worked out of the forest division at one time – There were three, maybe four Black women conductors. We had one out of our terminal, which is Hamlet. Then there was two that were down in Aderville. Well, actually it was three, but one of course, well, one doesn’t work. And the other two, I’m not sure, one I know is working. Another one is. And two were Black women. One was a white lady.
And incidentally, you do have a few. But as far as just getting in and trying to know how many of your colleagues you have, I’ve looked at it. And of course, you have the local guys. But I tried to look at it as just you’re having people that are doing the work and able to do the work at a competent level.
I knew, of course, the things that my dad did, that job disappeared. And of course, automation and a few things, but then having to do the work of trying to fit in and figure out your niche, yeah, you work out a pigeon hole, so to speak. And that’s why I tried to come in with it and look at it, well, take the best opportunity, learn and work with what you’ve got and move up. Incidentally, just to pick what you can and do the best with what you’ve got.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, and it makes sense, because like you said, this is something that railroad workers have been telling me nonstop. It is a good job. It’s one of the best blue collar jobs you can find with in terms of the pay, in terms of the pension. That’s why so many folks for so many years, if you were vested in the railroads after five years, you were pretty much in for life.
It’s been so sad to hear workers tell me that it doesn’t feel that way anymore. And they’re seeing people with 15, even 20 years leave the industry all together, or maybe they’ll run to passenger service as a refuge. And so, I know that we’re going to start tracing that, over the course of your career, how you’ve seen the industry change and what it looks like now. But before we get there, let’s focus in on that time when you hired out. So when did you hire out on the railroads?
Bryan Mack: I decided after trying my hand at the public school or so, it was the end of 2004, about December 2004. I’d done part-time stints and trying to – I taught public school a year, by the way, dealing with… Not so competent administration. Toward the end of 2004, I decided for that following year, 2005, I said, let me just try something different, and let me try to get some stability. Because I was almost 30 then, I had my graduate degree in addition to taking auditions, which I didn’t get that playing job and I didn’t want to go on to pursue doctoral work incidentally, because I do have a master’s in tuba performance, incidentally, a master’s of music and performance.
I decided, well, let’s just try something to see if it would get me compensation. So I’ve heard CSX was hiring, and with my being from Florence, I knew that there was going to be a long wait because in this area, this region where I’m from is called a PD region. And yes, if you see the PD Swamp that is actually accurate. PD region or PD Swamp, the great PD River. Florence was basically based off of that. And of course, the surrounding towns: Dillon, Marion, et cetera, the I-95 Corridor, Northeastern South Carolina, that is a big part of it. And I decided to give it a try.
So what I had to do, instead of looking at Florence, I wound up hiring, and they were looking for conductors in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was familiar with the town because I played with the orchestra. Yes, I had a good running relationship with the Charlotte Symphony. So I decided, hey, go ahead and give Charlotte a try, that’s a big town. And, hey, if you can make some money and do it, why not? So I went to Richmond, Virginia, in May, and I took the exam that was offered, and it was a program personality test, and it was at a local hotel up there in Richburg, Virginia. One evening, I think it was a Monday or Tuesday evening, I believe.
And anyhow, I took it. And it was proctored, about 8:00, took it that evening and I thought, okay. So when I got done, I decided, okay, we’ll go on back home. And I had to drive down to Fayetteville that night, got a little tired and stayed with a relative. So I found out they accepted me. Then I went to training in June, and from June to about July, I was in Jacksonville, Florida, the University of North Florida. We trained there and we learned the basics. They quizzed us and gave us testing. Then we went on the field train to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Well, we went to Atlanta at the REDI Institute, which is the acronym for Railroad Education Development Institute. And our train had actually pretty decent instructors and instructors at University of North Florida were good too. And from there, I spent two weeks in Atlanta. And then on the 1 of August, I went to on the job training in Charlotte at Pinocchio Yard. And from the end of August to September, to mid-October, I trained, and then I became a promoted conductor. So that was my first start on the railroad in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man. All right. Take me back to that time. Set the scene here. So you’d just gone down to Atlanta, you got your training, now you’re coming back up, you’re stepping into the train yard. What was it like for you in those first few weeks and months, just getting accustomed to that job? Because even though we’ve talked to so many railroaders over the past year, I still feel like I’m constantly learning new things about what you guys do every day. So for listeners who have never been on that side of the railroads, take us through that. What did it look like? What did a typical week look like? What goes into that job? And how were you as a young, just starting out in the industry, how are you adapting to all of that?
Bryan Mack: Well, when realizing – And of course I’m acutely aware now the differences, seeing passenger service, i.e. which it may be intercity service, which is Amtrak versus a commuter railroad, let’s say Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority, SEPTA, in Pennsylvania, the Metro Transit Authority or Metro in Chicago, New York’s Transit, or the MBTA in Massachusetts Bay Area Transit Authority, or Los Angeles Metrolink, or the varying agencies. There’s a difference in that.
And then you have freight, which of course, well, it was eight carriers, and I’ve seen it dwindle even through my lifetime. I’m familiar with freight operations, and of course, I’m familiar with passenger operations. So Florence, of course, has its north-south trains as well as the dedicated freight runs, i.e. intervals. So you see the people stepping up and riding.
Now, to debunk the myth of, hey, that railroad gets over and rides all day, all night. That was quickly dismissed, because as I’ve trained, I started learning the basics of showing up for work and then learning about changing a knuckle, which is a part of a rail car. I’ve done it a few times, but you don’t look forward to it. But I also learned about switching. And that came later, but my time when I first went to Charlotte, oh, it was not glamorous at all. And I learned that quickly.
So yeah, it changed my perspective in terms of going to work and getting up on the engine and going a hundred miles, waving, sticking my hand out the window waving at kids. No, no, no [Max laughs]. That was nothing. It was nothing of the sort. No. When I got to Charlotte after my training periods in Atlanta and Jacksonville, oh, man. You worked in the freight yard and you basically flat switched, which is the term of moving cars around the crew. And we were switchman foreman, and we were a three-man crew then, switchman foreman, and it was the engineer. And you basically worked in the yard, and you may have serviced the industrial customers, which dwindled even as my career started back in July 2005 to where we are now.
But no, it was on the ground, and we worked outside whether it was hot. Oh, gosh. And that was a little bit later, but I can never forget the summer of 2007 when it was really hot and they cut the crews back to one person on the ground, i.e. the foreman. I had a yard job, so I was the foreman, and I had an engineer on the cab. Well, then locomotive, and we were a servicing industry in 107 degree heat.
So that became a little bit of a, hm, I’m in this and it’s okay, but your job money, it was not glamorous, and no, it wasn’t this big large allotment of money that you were used to seeing. You weren’t waving at kids. And I also worked a good bit of night, oh, now, because you’re working daytime, no. You’re going to work a lot of, well, graveyard shift, so to speak, nighttime, because a lot of the railroad happens at night. As well as bad weather, inclement weather.
So when you get used to it. I was fortunate, and I really do appreciate the fact that I did work with men that knew how to switch. And there’s an art that you have to keep yourself safe, but they’re giving you the list and telling you what cars they want and what track and they telling you to order. And you have to know how to comprehend that, keep yourself safe, follow the rules, but also, you have to have a sense of knowing what to do and be responsible. And at the time, there was another person working with you. Because I trained with two other people on the ground in addition to an engineer, but then that was cut down to one person. And they were good people, but again, as anything goes retire, of course, automation and cutbacks and greed, it changed the dynamic eventually.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man. It never gets easier hearing people like you tell me about that. And I want to talk about those cuts in one second, but just since you’ve had this experience. So my day job, I’m the editor-in-chief of The Real News Network here in Baltimore. So I do this podcast independently, but mainly, I focus on the reporting that we do there. And we just published a really great essay by a carman, a guy who’s worked nearly 20 years as a carman and –
Bryan Mack: Oh, yes.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. And he was writing about East Palestine from the perspective of a carman and was describing how, especially over the past four to five years, things have changed on his side of the tracks and what that means in terms of… For everyone listening, the carmen, these are the guys inspecting the rail cars, and so they’re crawling all over these things. They’re checking out the bearings, they’re looking at the axles, they’re looking up and down, top, bottom, side to side.
And so, with these cuts every year, you have fewer guys who are tasked with checking more cars in less time. And then you have this philosophy from management that it’s like, if you bad order a car and send it to the repair shop, you’re costing the company money. And so obviously the incentive for you is going to be, well, I don’t want to get chewed out for sending cars to get repaired, and also I’m under the gun and just have an impossible workload. So naturally, anyone is going to fall into the process of things where you’re actually not able to take as much time as you want to check those cars. Things are going to fall through the cracks. And that’s sadly what we are seeing more frequently.
And so again, I want to get to the cuts, what that looked like on your side, and what that translates to on the day-to-day side of the railroads. But just since you were there on the ground, I was wondering if you could give listeners and myself more of a sense of that ecosystem. Because I think all last year when we were reporting on the contract fights and we were going through the presidential emergency board, the federal mediator, we were talking about a potential rail shutdown in September and then another one in December. A lot of the focus, understandably, tended to go towards the conductors and the engineers. Because those are the people that most of us think about when we think about the railroads.
But what I hope we contributed was getting people to understand that there are a lot of people doing a lot of essential jobs to make the railroads happen. And that’s why you have all these different unions representing different workers on the railroads. And so, I was wondering if you could give the newbies or the people who don’t see that side of the railroads a little more of a sense of what it looks like there in the yard. Who are the different folks out there who aren’t the conductors and engineers working in the terminal?
Bryan Mack: Well, I’m going to spread that over two [inaudible] places where I worked, because I started my career in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I wound up working over in Hamlet, North Carolina. All right? So with the same company, CSX.
When I hired out in Charlotte, you had, I think it was eight or nine car inspectors, and they were good guys to work with. And basically, we interact with the car inspectors, they did the brake test, and again, they checked the brakes on the cars. And we the conductors, well, little brown crew, so to speak, the switchman foreman, we knew they locked out the track and locked out the locomotive, and they did the test to get the cars. Again, that was the ecosystem. And we had a repair shop. And we respected each other’s craft, so to speak. And we knew that the numbers with some of the guys they hired out pre 1985, and that was definitely a year for the contracts because again, they were protected workers versus someone after 1985. And yeah, that’s another thing within itself. But we knew the older school guys and they knew their jobs so they could tell you stories. And again, we appreciated that mentorship. And again, Pinoca Yard was small, but Charlotte being the city that it is was growing. Then some other business picked up.
So again, we knew that there were grumblings about wanting to do away with the size of the crew. So they did cut our people working on the ground from a switchman form to a [inaudible]. And the car ground, the car inspectors, when somebody retired, you knew basically as that person retired, you might not fill in that vacancy. So that was Charlotte.
And again, the Great Recession back 2008, 2009, oh, it was bad and brutal. Cutbacks. I lost my seniority. So I want to stay in the business. And again, I was not able to leave of my own accord because, again, the recession. So I decided, well. Go and try my hand-over to the class yard, which was the hub terminal facility, the classification facility in Hamlet, which is about 74, well, about 75, well in rail miles, 85 miles from Charlotte. And that facility, car inspectors, you have two yards. Oh, yes. It was a big facility built under the Seaboard Airline in 1954.
And I went there, that was where came travelling and learning territory. And the guys, of course, taking trains of freight over many more miles. And of course, you’re dealing with the signal railroad, and you saw the car inspector, you also saw mechanical, maintenance away, signal maintainer. And those guys, incidentally, you become friends with those guys because they’re part of that infrastructure there. You’ve got signal maintainers, they work on crossings and additional signals and the defect detectors. That’s the big thing too. Maintenance away, whether they’re track inspectors who inspect the rails, particularly when it’s hot, but also check the rails for maintenance.
Gosh, you also have people, if you’re in a classification facility that work on every car. So all of the active welders, car inspectors, and Hamlet handled sometimes 2,000 and 3,000 cars, actually received more like 10,000 up in a few shelves, and that had to be processed. So yeah, that was eye-opening, being able to work there, too. That’s when I really got to travel when I went to Hamlet in 2009. So yes, my career did, and I was out of work when the Great Recession hit, well, basically about four or five months, and really, I qualified at Hamlet. So yes, I then left Charlotte and went east and worked out of Hamlet. And that’s when my career picked up. And a lot of my colleagues that hired out in Charlotte actually came over to Hamlet.
Maximillian Alvarez: Wow, man, I could talk to you for another hour about the recession and that whole time period, because in a lot of ways that’s where this show and my trajectory started, because I won’t… Don’t worry listeners, I’m not going to make you guys listen to the story another time. But yeah, man, we lost everything in the recession. We lost the house that I grew up in.
Bryan Mack: Wow.
Maximillian Alvarez: This time 12 years ago I was a temp working in warehouses and factories back home in Southern California and didn’t know what was going to happen. And I could just see and feel in myself how depressed I was, how depressed my dad and my mom were, and how we were all holding that inside and blaming ourselves for a worldwide recession that was impacting millions and millions of people and families.
And so, the first person that I ever interviewed for this show was my dad, Jesus Alvarez, because I wanted to try to get him to talk about that stuff. And then we ended up talking for almost three hours about his life, about becoming a citizen, meeting my mom, building a family, and then just so much blowing up and disappearing in the recession and all that stuff.
I’m constantly reminded every time we do another episode of how important it is for us to provide space for each other to talk about this stuff and to share our stories, and to remind ourselves that our stories are important and deserve to be shared. And folks like you, you have so much knowledge and experience, and so many incredible stories. It’s like, why don’t we talk about that more? It drives me nuts. But I just wanted to point that out, because both of our paths intertwine at that historical moment. So talk to me then about what happened afterwards. Like you said, you were out of work for maybe four months, and then things picked up. So what happened then?
Bryan Mack: Well, when I was cut off out of Charlotte, it basically – And you could see it happening because we knew, we saw the company over-hired, and yet the freight that was coming into the yard wasn’t much. And then you’re hearing about the news, because I’m the type, of course, I listen to a lot of broadcast news. I’m not going to say I’m a news junky, but I am aware of national public video and the big three, or soul media outlets, et cetera, et cetera. And we knew that things were a bit different from the customers and the cars coming in. So about ’08, they just thought of us as little cuts and cuts, and you don’t think about it, but when it does happen, and I’m going to say when Lehman Brothers, and that was the biggie. And that happened about what, 2008, 2009 or so.
That really was the island, because from there each week you noticed somebody was cut off or somebody was back. And we got agreements. Well, flowing back to being a conductor, because to become a locomotive engineer, now you have to start out as a conductor, and then we get promoted or get called to engine service training school.
And if you were an engineer and there’s no slot, then if they don’t use you as locomotive engineer, then you go back to being a conductor. And the engineers that had time, that were above me, because I came in, I had two or three years about 2008, well, they who had already about eight, nine, or 10 years, a lot of those men who were actually – And yes, they were male – That were renting, well, operating locomotives, they became conductors again. So that basically pushes me or someone from lower seniority out. We had guys that were training and they actually were forced out, and some of them were able to survive. A lot of us went to the classification yard when it was, get in where you fit in. So I got cut off.
And myself, my last days were December 2008, and I knew a good friend of mine who I actually spoke to yesterday, he was cut off right before Christmas, Dec. 15 or so. Yeah, was cut off from his job. I was able to hold up, ‘cause my seniority, he’s the man below me. I can hold on right until Jan. 9. And I’ll never forget my last day working when my seniority ran out, I worked the job 3:22 in the yard. Oh, man, it was cold that night. I think the low temperature was nine.
Then I’ve had to get out and work. And the guy who should have worked the job, he called out. So I went in and I was like, man, I’m going to end my career working a cold job [Max laughs]. And of course, thanks. Go in and you do it. And I went in and it was, oh, gosh, it was a Monday or Tuesday. It was one of those days in the week. And a little later, I got my call, because they used to call you on the phone. And after I was done, I came in and it told me I was displaced, and that was it.
So here I am in my nice apartment, I decide, oh, gosh, what I’m going to do that I’m paying month-to-month rent, which is expensive. So I said, well, put my stuff into storage, and I went back home to Florence. My folks didn’t know that. That was another thing in itself, but I said, well, let me try Hamlet, North Carolina, which was the classification zone. And they went through their share of cutbacks too, of course, because then those following months, so 2009, I was able to actually not work there in the yard, but there was a outlined point switcher job, which was under the jurisdiction of Hamlet, which I followed or trained on.
And nobody really wanted that job, because it was closer to my house versus North Carolina. And again, I live in South Carolina, but yet to go to work, I drove from where I’m at currently. The drive is about an hour and a half, close to 75 miles, just to go to work. So no, you knew what was going on, but then you said, when I wanted to keep the job, I wanted to keep the benefit. Drawing the railroad unemployment is not glamorous.
But no, I went in and I did that and, hey, it was a job. But I realized I stuck and stayed in with it. And the following year, because I was able to stick around enough and I worked out of Hamlet, I made a pact with my folks to go back and forth. And I did, because I had to qualify on, for instance, 2,200 miles of territory. Oh, yes, I had to get on a freight train or what have you and go to outlying points: Abbeville, Greenwood, South Carolina, Bostic, North Carolina. Oh, gosh, up in Rocky Mountain, North Carolina.
Well, eventually extended an inter-provisional run to Charleston, but Florence, going through Florence, down to Charleston. And yeah, you’ve gone to those places, Andrew, South Carolina, Wilmington, North Carolina. Well, yes, you will work those places as outlying point jobs. So no, it was a lot there to do, and you grew up.
But then one thing I can say, and to put a good spin on it is when I learned how to flat switch, it was much, much easier for me to be able to take those skills and to work around equipment, because I felt then on the line of road, hey, I knew how to do this. And that was a big part of me fitting in going to Hamlet. So yeah, it was not easy.
Maximillian Alvarez: This also makes me think. We’ve heard a lot about the introduction of precision – I’m using air quotes here. People can’t see – The “precision scheduled railroading.” And I know that this concept has been around for a while, since the ’90s, I think, but it really took off in earnest in recent years across the different major rail carriers.
But it sounds like even just from what you’ve been describing, those changes that really got supercharged by the introduction of precision scheduled railroading, which I mean, we don’t have to get all into that. But again, just for listeners, to refresh your memory, what folks have told us is that this is just the industry generated term for the entire Wall Street-led philosophy of cutting the operating ratio every year no matter what. So cutting labor costs, cutting investment in track maintenance and preventative inspection and making sure that every department is fully staffed, so on and so forth.
So instead of doing that, just chopping costs “left and right”, reducing the crew sizes on the train, reducing the crew sizes in the yard, reducing the maintenance of way crews and so on and so forth. And every year getting that operating ratio down so that you’re spending less while you’re making the cars longer.
As we already know, a lot of freight gets moved in the country, and that’s the only way it can be moved. You can’t just unload all of that onto the highways. So there are a lot of shippers, a lot of customers who have no choice but to use the railroads, and the railroads know that, so they have a captive market. And so, what they learned was they could charge what they want. They could have a chokehold on the supply chain. They could keep cutting their staff and piling more work onto fewer workers. All the while, the industry is more profitable than it’s ever been. We’re talking billions and billions and billions of dollars here in profits, stock buybacks, shareholder dividends, executive salaries, all that crap.
And so, the reason I go into that, Bryan, is because it sounds like what you’re describing is you could see these changes taking hold long before the precision scheduled railroading really became the name of the game in the industry. Am I reading that right?
Bryan Mack: Yes, you are. And I could go back to my days in Charlotte for a sec about 2007. And it was actually defeated, it was the Children’s Fund, I believe. The Children’s Fund was a hedge fund that was going to take over CSX’s operation, and basically they were going to start the strip back, so to speak, of operations. Because again, the company didn’t make a lot of investments previously in the ’90s to the infrastructure, locomotives or track, et cetera. And at the same time, after the big Conrail merger, Michael Ward and the management group at the time did invest back into the locomotives. They invested back into fixing the track, and it was successful. It really was.
However, you could see that you heard about the cutbacks in other places, and yes, we knew who Ewing Hunter Harrison was, but we didn’t think that it was going to just change or take whole. We just knew that, hey, the trajectory was going to be big and bright.
Again, Michael Ward, who was the CSX CEO before Ewing Harrison, yes, we were expecting good things, and yes, we knew that there were tips as far back as 2008. The Children’s Fund did do that, but that was forwarded off because people voted against that. But you fast forward to 2016, 2017, and again, in comes the elections and Ewing Harrison and all of that. And I think he was able to get influence because, again, he lived in Florida, and of course, I think he was a member of [inaudible] club.
Maximillian Alvarez: So that inner sanctum, right, with all those people.
Bryan Mack: Yes. So he had a captive ear, so to speak, of future presidential candidates.
Maximillian Alvarez: What did that look like for you on the job as this stuff really started to take hold?
Bryan Mack: Oh, it was bad. Bad, bad, bad. We started seeing that hm, oh, watch, they made this change. But then we realized, well, wait a sec. If you don’t have X number of people that are running and you’re going to make the yard a flat switching yard, it takes time to do that, and you didn’t have enough people to do the work. How are you going to make this…? It’s almost like you’re pulling cars out of the air, but yet you don’t have the people to manufacture them or to make just anything or… So to speak, I’ve heard the term pulling hen’s teeth, that their tips almost seemed too good to be true. And yet we noticed the cutbacks.
And then, we noticed the people that were laid off. Then we noticed the discipline. And I have to say, the whole crush with management, oh, gosh. And I have to say this, the sociopath – And I use that term just of all of the people that they’ve had in, it’s been just terribly mismanaged, and nobody knew what was the focus. Nobody knew what’s the focus. Customers were mad, oh, gosh, I worked a local switcher, and the customers were just irate at all the changes and guys, people quit. Oh, it had the most terrible of the hump, one of the biggest fiascos the country or even myself or the industry could ever experience. Just terrible.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man, I’m so sorry to hear that. I really, really am. I can only imagine, given all of that, what it was like for you and your fellow railroaders to watch the media and the response from the media and the politicians and even the public for a lot of last year when, as we’ve already mentioned, the high stakes contract negotiations between the 12 different unions representing over 115,000 rail workers and the freight carriers, the class ones. All of that came to a head, even though at that point we were three years into the contract negotiation. So it’s not like this had just come from nowhere, it’s just a lot of us on the outside just didn’t know about it or just weren’t paying attention.
And I know that more people are paying attention now, which is a positive. But I wanted to ask, what was it like for you as a railroader watching your contract fight either be ignored, or then when it was finally covered last year, the kind of coverage it was getting? What do you think maybe folks in the public weren’t seeing and weren’t hearing about when the rest of the national media started paying attention to the crisis on the railroads?
Bryan Mack: I think a lot of people didn’t realize that with the unions and the job of the railroad, it’s a structured way of how you are supposed to deal with contracts. But also, the fact that worker input or employee input was never great, and the leverage was always going to be for the carrier, so to speak. Now, a lot of people didn’t understand that the days off, we didn’t have. I worked my career primarily off the extra board. And again, when they cut the extra board back to the point that I didn’t stand to work in handling, I had to look to outlying point job, which incidentally was controlled by another set of so-called professionals – And I use that term very strongly there. So-called.
But no, the customers weren’t getting the service, and it was just the public didn’t understand when outright started coming about the service of the train, we knew that they were trying to do more with less, but we also knew the trains weren’t getting across, they didn’t have the crews, the personnel, the people, general public didn’t know about how we’d work or didn’t work.
The extra board is on call. The public doesn’t know about that. And also, when I think the general public will understand the railroad has their own governing bodies and own structure and to strike, no, that’s illegal. They didn’t understand that. And no, a lot of what should have happened – And this whole thing with the contract negotiation, we wondered, and it showed who was on our work on the side of the rank and file, so to speak, which wasn’t big. This is even some of the politicians that we thought were on our side. So no, it feels not good.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I think it bears repeating, that after what happened, let us not forget, we “averted” a potential rail shutdown in September because we were approaching the end of the cooling off after the Presidential Emergency Board had released its report in August, which meant that after the end of that period, then legally strikes could occur, or lockouts initiated by the carriers could occur.
And then there was this closed door, 11th hour bargaining session involving Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, Pete Buttigieg, and everyone in the contract negotiating war room. And so, we got this tentative agreement that was kicked back to the membership. There were different timelines for different unions to vote on that, yada, yada, yada. So anyway, I’m paving over a lot here, but again, folks have heard us cover this over the past year and a half. I just want to make sure that everyone’s remembering the timelines.
So then we were walking our way up to the end of November. It was looking like there were still a lot of members in the unions who were understandably dissatisfied with the contents of that tentative agreement, who were prepared to vote it down or had already voted it down. It was looking like a potential strike could occur in early December. And Joe Biden urged Congress to force that contract down workers’ throats. Everyone in DC congratulated themselves on, I don’t know, saving Christmas and averting a national rail shutdown while essentially giving these rail carriers who have destroyed the supply chain and the workers who make it run everything they fucking wanted – Pardon my French.
And so, I was staring at this and I was like, what incentive do the carriers have to change? None. Because if they know that this is what whoever’s in the White House, whoever’s in Congress, like they did last year, like they did back in the early ’90s, they’re going to be that ace in the hole for the carriers, and they’re going to force workers to accept a contract that they don’t want to.
And so, I wanted to ask, from your vantage point, what has it been like for you and your coworkers after that whole debacle? Because I think if we hadn’t had the catastrophe of the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, this wouldn’t be on anyone’s radar. It’s just like, because such a horrific event happened and now the public’s attention is on this stuff again, and they’re realizing that, in fact, these derailments happen quite frequently, and there are reasons for that and that we should be looking at and actually addressing. But if we hadn’t had that, I don’t know if anyone would still be invested in this as much as they should be.
So I wanted to ask for you personally and for railroad workers in general that you’ve known and been talking to, what has it been like since that whole shit show at the end of November and early December last year?
Bryan Mack: Well, I know for a fact there’s a lot of displeasure with the agreement. I can tell you that my colleagues looked at that contract and said, God, no days off. They were displeased when the first round of talks, so to speak, with the bargaining board. They were upset with that, because what it was, they felt that, hey, they ignored, again, time off the pay rate… Well, the amount bargained for… Well, it shouldn’t even be bargained, it just should be the pay rate was low, and one like 20%, well, 45%, something like that. You didn’t get that. And again, we’re going through this record inflation, and we still worked through the pandemic. We still didn’t have changes to the time off, vacation, et cetera. And yet, you’re still cutting people, and you needed a bunch of people, but then you didn’t focus in on training.
The training, and that’s another thing. It’s just the people that they tried to hire, oh, gosh, they didn’t a bit more know what was going on than the man in the moon, because not only they’re not trained, but they’re not doing the protocols of working, thinking about what you’re doing, paying attention. You mentioned derailments. Well, if you were, let’s say, switching your car out, let’s use that as an example, you would know that if you’ve got to go into a track, and if you’re putting cars into a track and it’s, let’s say, off a controlled track, there’s going to be a switch that you have to line up. Then you are also going to have something called a derail, and that’s a device, or whether it’s a device or a cutout person, a track that’s going to keep a train on the track or derail it off just in case. It’s like an assuring thing to make sure you’re not going to cause much damage. Well, the guys or the new hires didn’t know how to do that.
Also, they did not have a clear sense of keeping themselves safe in terms of equipment or switching out equipment. You’re moving around cars and things. And what I say to that is, if you’re not keeping the knowledge of the old guys who’ve got 25, 26 years in or more, and they leave, well, who’s going to pass on the knowledge to the people that you want to hire? I think before this precision scheduled railroading, now to return the mic back to you, is we had guys that could have passed that knowledge on, but instead when they cut back the first round, those guys were gone. You won’t get those guys back. And of course, that is a travesty in itself. And no, we are not pleased. A lot of us, my friends and colleagues are just saying, hey, we went to retirement. That’s it. They wouldn’t recommend anyone, and we don’t want to see people as a fatality. That’s what we want to avoid. We don’t want to see that.
We want you to go home the same way you came to work, in one piece, and with your job, of course. You didn’t tear nothing up, you didn’t hurt anybody. That’s what we want to do when we’re working. And no, we think that that was all thrown out for naught, whether it was the politicians who don’t understand anything, or the general public who was just held out there, or the carriers who were only looking at their stock buyback, some rich person who doesn’t do any work. That is the biggest thing I think we’ve gotten out of, we figured, well, who’s our friends? Who pulls for us? Nationalization, I think, is one thing that might, well, but yeah, who’s pulling for the rail employees? That’s what we’re wondering.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, geez. I mean, I think that you said it all there, man. And I really, really hope that folks who are listening to this understand that, as I said earlier, we have a role to play here. We have to keep our attention focused on this. We have to keep demanding accountability for what these companies and their greedy shareholders and executives have done to this vital workforce, what they’ve done to our supply chain, and what they’ve done to put our communities and communities like East Palestine at hazard because of their relentless greed and their relentless need to boost their operating ratio, so on and so forth.
Before we let you go, man, I wanted to ask about what’s been going on with your work and career specifically of late, because I know that you are dealing with some real bullshit – Pardon in my French – And I wanted to ask if you could tell us a bit more about that, and especially what folks listening to this can do to show solidarity with you and to support you?
Bryan Mack: Okay. Well, my thing is, if you don’t know, I was basically, purportedly, by arbitration, dismissed because I violated safety rules. And I’ll tell you, a lot of the railroad class one carriers, if you look at their manager, they’re some of the worst people. And you would wonder how did they get their job. Sociopaths, that you could find. If the top level executives that I was talking about with their background, their so-called education or lack of education, who they are, if you would talk to them, seeing who they are, they’re basically toeing the line of the people that found the railroads in also that wants to do the precision PSR.
But also, you’re dealing with people and all of the isms. Nepotism is bad. Bigotry is bad. Racism is bad. I could truthfully say for myself, with the credentials I had, and I knew the management core that I dealt with in a division, they were all white, male, and they were ignorant. And they felt that I myself was a threat because I came in, oh, some of the stuff that I did going above and beyond to even get the equipment to work. And even I’ve dealt with a few bad managers that were actually female too, that basically you hired people not because of what they knew, but because they were your buddy. And if you’re seeing that in the field, imagine what headquarters have.
So no, I’ve been out of work and I fought it with the union. I haven’t worked since May 2021. So yes, I was dismissed, of course, trying to fight that. And then arbitration says otherwise, and it was an era of harassment for the Black employees. Oh, yes, certain ones were protected years ago with certain suits and settlements that they couldn’t talk about. And remember this, the non-disclosure agreement or NDA, that is common. Very, very common, particularly with CSX.
Start asking, well, how do you hire, and what are your credentials for getting someone in the railroad? Then you’re going to ask yourself to the general public, well, how does this person respond well to somebody? When you hear the spokesperson, you’re not actually talking to that manager who makes the decision. You’re not talking to the chief of operations, they’re held up someplace. They’re not answering to you, the public, who’s the beneficiaries of the service. And what I can say is we think diversity is good, but when it looks down to the industry like the railroad, there’s a lot of peeling back of the layers of the onion, so to speak. When you see that, that’s what needs to happen.
I think myself, and I know some of my colleagues were working, and again, I knew I was singled out because, again, when you’re dealing with people and their particular perceptions, racism, bigotry, et cetera, you’re dealing with people that are threatened by someone that not only knows what they’re doing, but also someone that’s going to go against the management or someone that’s going to call it out, hey, this isn’t right.
And I really do think that a lot of what happened that could make it better for not just myself or someone is the public need to know and say, hey, we need to call this out. I wish people could get the human resources of the railroads to see, well wait a sec, you might have one or two people of color in on this other job, but who’s actually doing the work? What’s been your hiring? Well, what have you done? I think that’s really one of the worst things. And you can see it. Oh, yeah, CSX, Norfolk Southern, but yeah, I mean, Fortress Jacksonville, so to speak. Oh, yeah.
There’s a lot of things that they will not tell you there. And I think myself, hey, if anyone’s listing, I will tell you this. When they do listen, hey, the only thing I’m willing to do is do my job, get my job, go back and forth and work to serve the greater good. That’s all it should be. Not because you’re figuring that I did something wrong. You’ve got some pent-up phobia or fear because of someone that looks like me or something that you took from years ago.
No, we all, my friends and I came into work and yes. Yeah. It was bad harassment. It was bad harassment. My colleagues that are of color can tell you some stories. But again, it gets swept under the rug, and you see it, and yet no one does. You’re talking to a person that has a master’s plus 18 hours, and yet I was never promoted as a dispatcher. Yet, I was never told, hey, go into transportation. No. And it wasn’t because I worked badly with us, it’s because I dealt with sociopathic management that kept in the supremacist attitude that if I’m hiring my friend or my buddy, we’re going to keep everything in check and everything in check. Here is what’s led to what we have now.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man, and it’s such a powerful statement. And that I would normally end the episode there on that final word that you said because I want people to really sit and think with that. But I couldn’t help but hop back in because I’m thinking about the story that you shared at the beginning with your dad working on the railroads, and during derailments, being there cooking for everyone and cooking for the people doing the cleanup, the crew.
And even then, like you said, still dealing with a lot of racist problems in and beyond the railroad industry. And it’s just like when I think of that scene that you described with your dad and your grandma and the way that we handled derailments then, and how often derailments happen then compared to now, and I’m just really struck by that. I wanted to ask by way of rounding out, what do you think has changed for the better in that time, and what do you think hasn’t changed at all?
Bryan Mack: Well, overall for the industry, I think you’ve got people that care, that know what they’re doing. They actually care about their job. They come to work, they take it seriously. Go above and beyond. I mean, I just saw it even myself working my years. Gosh, me and my colleagues that I worked with, we wanted to… Should we show up? I have one of the best attendance records, and I’m not ashamed to tell anyone that I have one of the best attendance records.
I didn’t take off other than when I needed to. I’ve always showed up, didn’t use time, didn’t mark off or anything, so to speak, unless it was a bad weather condition or something. But no, I showed up operations, went above and beyond, bought the equipment in, and I think the training was better. But then now, even that has been laid way to the side. But also, I think we’ve got to ask ourselves, hey, the next generation’s not going to do some of the things there. Let’s look back and say, do it better. But also, hey, we are not in it for greed, but rather the greater good.
If you want to get good treatment, hey, treat people like the way you want to be treated. Look at the work, the employees, not as workers, but as colleagues, and maybe even your own children, you’re showing benevolence to them. That’s how I would see. That’s how I see. I think that’s what should be improved upon, focused upon.
Other thing I can tell you is just if you talk to some of the people that, whether they’re conductors or mechanical personnel, signals, et cetera, hey, you hear their stories. They’re the people that want to work. Then whether it’s an isolated locale, they want to do the right thing, and they know that the job is a good job. But, hey, allow them to do the work, to keep the public safe. And not only that, allow them to do what’s necessary to keep the trains rolling. Yeah, something may happen, but the people deserve better, the public. But not only that, and if you’ve got your infrastructure there, hey, let’s do it for the good of everybody. I’m thinking more win-win. But yeah, we’ve got to, hey, do better. If you know better, you can do better. Right?