Railroad workers are being ground to dust

TRNN viewers may remember a recent interview we published at the beginning of February in which Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez spoke with retired railway engineer Jeff Kurtz about a US District Court blocking railroad workers at BNSF Railway from striking over the recent implementation of a draconian new attendance policy. Even if the story has faded from the headlines, the struggles railroad workers are facing have not gone away in the slightest, and workers and their families have reported that BNSF’s “Hi-Viz” policy has been a disaster for them and for the railroad industry. In this crucial follow-up report, Alvarez speaks with Jeff Kurtz and Ron Kaminkow of Railroad Workers United about what workers have been going through since the implementation of this new attendance policy and what can be done about it.

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. Ron Kaminkow is currently serving as General Secretary of Railroad Workers United. Prior to hiring out as a brakeman with Conrail in 1996, he served as President of AFSCME Local 634 in Madison, Wisconsin. In 2005, Kaminkow helped to found Railroad Operating Crafts United (ROCU), an RWU predecessor. A former brakeman, conductor, and engineer for Conrail and later NS in Chicago, he formerly worked for Amtrak in Milwaukee and Chicago. He currently is working as an Amtrak engineer in Reno, Nevada, where he is the Vice President of BLET Local 51.

Pre-Production/Studio: Maximillian Alvarez

Post-Production: Adam Coley


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 you all with us. Real News viewers may remember a recent interview that we published at the beginning of February, in which I spoke with retired railroad engineer Jeff Kurtz about a crucial and underreported labor struggle happening in the railroad sector.

In January of this year, 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 against BNSF railway that would’ve begun on February 1. This would have comprised the largest railway strike in recent memory. The union cited as the main point of contention BNSF’s new Hi-Viz scheduling and availability policy, which workers feared would separate them from their families and make it next to impossible to live and reasonably plan their lives.

As we reported in that interview, a US district court judge granted BNSF a temporary restraining order blocking the two unions from striking while still allowing the Hi-Viz policy to go into effect. Well, it should shock no one to learn that the concerns workers expressed about this new policy were well-founded. Even if the story has faded from the headlines, the struggles workers are facing have not gone away, not in the slightest. And it is imperative that we do not forget about them.

The disastrous effects of BNSF’s Hi-Viz policy have not been entirely ignored, however. In a recent piece for VICE‘s Motherboard titled “What Choice Do I Have? Freight Train Conductors Are Forced To Work Tired, Sick, And Stressed,” Aaron Gordon spoke with 45 current and former BNSF conductors, engineers, and their families. In the piece, Gordon writes, “Basic needs like sleeping, going to the doctor and seeing their spouses and kids now seem to them impossible tasks. Workers have had to choose between going to a relative’s funeral, causing them to lose so many points they won’t have any wiggle room for future emergencies, or skipping it and going into work. Stress and fatigue levels were regularly reported as at all-time highs, both by workers themselves and their families. And many worry about the safety of the railroads, which are a major method of transportation of hazardous materials.”

Now, as was the case when we recorded our first interview on this story, workers currently employed at BNSF are deeply afraid of retaliation from the company if they speak out publicly. And again, their fears appear to be very well-founded. This is why I am so grateful to be joined today by our former guest Jeff Kurtz, as well as Ron Kaminkow of Railroad Workers United, who are both going to help us give Real News viewers and listeners an update on BNSF’s Hi-Viz policy and what workers have been going through since our last report.

Jeff Kurtz was a 40-year railroad 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 Railroad Workers United and the local labor chapter of the Iowa Federation of Labor.

Ron Kaminkow is currently serving as general secretary of Railroad Workers United. Prior to hiring out as a brakeman with Conrail in 1996, he served as president of AFSCME Local 634 in Madison, Wisconsin. In 2005, Kaminkow helped to found Railroad Operating Crafts United, an RWU predecessor. A former brakeman, conductor, and engineer for Conrail and later NS in Chicago, he formerly worked for Amtrak in Milwaukee and Chicago. He is currently working as an Amtrak engineer in Reno, Nevada, where he is the vice president of BLET Local 51. Ron, Jeff, thank you both so much for joining me today.

Ron Kaminkow: Thanks, Max.

Jeff Kurtz: Thank you, Max.

Maximillian Alvarez: So, I am really grateful to y’all for making time for this, because as I said there in the introduction, it’s so important that we do not forget about the railroad workers who are being crushed by this Hi-Viz policy. And I want to ask you guys to basically give us an update on how things have progressed since Jeff and I last talked here at The Real News. But I guess before we get there, why don’t we refresh viewers’ and listeners’ memory and make sure that everyone is on the same page and knows what we’re talking about here, what real workers have been going through, and what went on with the kind of introduction of this new Hi-Viz policy and the courts blocking railroad workers from striking.

So, Jeff, why don’t I start with you. And then Ron, I’ll toss it over to you. If you guys could just sort of, again, break it down for folks who may have not seen that last report or may have forgotten some of the details since they last watched it.

Jeff Kurtz: Okay, thank you, Max. I’d like the viewers to imagine that their life is a scorecard, because that’s exactly what these workers are facing. They start off with a score of 30 points that they can never exceed that 30 points. They will get four points allocated back to their score. Say they get down to 20 points. If they work 14 days in a row, they will get four points allocated back to their score. But the points that you can lose are really dramatic. So, I mean, you could lose points for an incident. You could lose 15 points for an incident.

There are specific incidents. If you don’t show up for work for whatever reason. We had a gentleman that was in a car wreck, and it wasn’t his fault. He was about a mile from his terminal and his car was totaled. And the supervisor that came out there told him, she said, you’re not going to work. She said, you could be hurt, and we don’t know it. So they, what we call marked this guy off. They marked him off the job. Well, he initially was saddled with a 15 point deduction for not showing up to work. And eventually, I think that the local supervisor protested this, so they only docked him three points.

But this is exactly what’s going on. I heard of a case where a worker, his mother died while he was en route, and the railroad pulled him off the train, and then they tried to dock him points for it. And the stories just go on and on and on. And Max, what you alluded to as far as things getting worse when people aren’t watching, that’s exactly what’s happening.

Now trains are sitting still, people are quitting in record numbers. I think the railroad thought that this was going to work to where people were going to be miserable and they could actually monetize the misery of these employees and make more money. But it’s really backfired. Now we have trains sitting still. We have people that are off anyway. We have people that are quitting that are never coming back. And now people don’t want to hire out on the railroad because they’re not going to give their life away, which I don’t blame them. So that pretty much sews it up.

Ron Kaminkow: Yeah. I’d like to follow up on what Jeff was saying there. It’s a different world today than it was when Jeff hired out, and of course, even when I hired out in the ’90s. The rail industry, the class one railroads, have continually with each contract tended to whittle away. We pay higher deductibles, more copays and so forth in our health insurance. Now the rail industry is threatening to reduce the train crew from two to one.

So a lot of what the railroad industry is suffering is self-inflicted. You know, they like to blame, oh, it’s the supply chain crisis out of our control. It’s the pandemic. It’s out of our control. They even blame the West coast longshoremen’s union for their contract that disallows them from working at times during the work week. But it’s always someone else’s fault, it’s not the rail industry. But if you look at what the rail industry’s trajectory has been for years now – And by the way, Max, we’re moving less freight than we did 16 years ago. So when the rail industry says, oh, things are backlogged and it’s not our fault, well, why is an industry that is a backbone of the industrial society of this country moving less freight than it did 16 years ago? There’s way more freight moving out there, trust me. The economy’s expanded dramatically, but it’s not going on the rail. And that’s because the rail industry has literally driven it off. And so their antics to reduce the operating ratio at all costs and increase stock price, dividends, and profits in general has basically caused them to develop what some insiders are calling the cult of the operating ratio.

And one of the ways that you drop the operating ratio and cut costs is to get rid of labor. And so pre-pandemic, the industry was downsizing dramatically, dramatically increasing the length of their trains, sidelining locomotives, and largely driving off business. The shippers’ groups all around the country are very, very discontent. It’s hardly a week goes by that a different shipper association doesn’t weigh in to Congress with their complaints of poor service and the inability to meet their customers’ expectations.

And so this is a trend that has then manifested itself in things like the BNSF Hi-Viz policy, because they have this huge labor shortage now, since they largely laid off thousands and thousands of train and engine workers pre- and during the pandemic. Now they’re scrambling to get people back, but the cat’s out of the bag. The pandemic has changed everything, and now all railroad workers are saying, maybe I’d rather work from home at a white collar job. Maybe make a few less dollars, but have time with my family, time with my kids. I’m not under the gun. The phone’s not ringing at three in the morning, I’m not subject to termination literally at any moment, and I don’t have to deal with all that stress.

And so this trend that’s been going on for decades now I think has reached the crunch point, and the rail industry has to catch up with reality and start realizing the old way is pretty much going away. And if you want to be able to hire enough people and retain them, you have to start treating us like human beings.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, let’s zero in on that for a second. Because we did this a bit when I last spoke with Jeff about this. We talked about how the institution of this Hi-Viz policy at BNSF really connects to the larger trajectory of the railroad industry, like you were saying, Ron. And we sort of contextualize that in Jeff’s own experience as a train engineer for many years. And I know that you yourself have a whole lot of personal experience with those changes that you’re describing.

So I was wondering if you guys could, again, for viewers and listeners, bring that down to eye level and communicate to folks who have never worked on the railroads what this translates to on a day-to-day level. These cost-cutting measures and the sort of piling on of work onto fewer and fewer people who are being asked to be on call for more and more of their lives. What does that look like on a day-to-day level for someone working on the railroads?

Jeff Kurtz: Yeah. One of the things that we did with my legislative board when I was still an active employee is we went to the University of Iowa to explore some of the problems that we had on the job. This was back in 2010. Fatigue being a big one. It’s because of the nature of the job and the fact that most rail workers don’t have set hours. Say, they can go to work at any time of the day or night, and they can only perform service for 12 hours, but they can be out on the railroad for an unlimited amount of time. For example, back in, I think it was 2001, we had an ice storm near central Illinois. I was on a train, my 12 hours expired, but I didn’t get off that train for 38 hours. You don’t recover from that for a long time. The cab of a locomotive is about the size of a bathroom, maybe. So it’s not that big. But we had probably four or five people in that cab because we were picking up dead trains as we went along and we would sit still for hours upon hours at a time.

But with the institution of this policy, this has been happening with railroad workers. I’ve been hearing from all over the country that a lot of these guys now, after their tour of duty, they spend 12 hours out there. They might be another eight to 10 hours before somebody gets them off that train and puts them in a hotel. What that leads to is massive amounts of stress when you’re doing this day after day after day.

One of the things that we’ve been looking at here lately is something called allostatic load and allostatic overload, which it’s a kind of a fancy way of talking about how stress will produce hormones in your body that are not necessarily good for you. Stress will cause fatigue, fatigue will cause stress, and you get into this vicious cycle. And right now, from what I’ve been hearing from a lot of these engineers and conductors, I can tell the strain in their voice. I can hear it. I go to union meetings still. I can talk to these guys. They’re pretty close to a breaking point.

I think Secretary Buttigieg has a letter. I think it was the President of the BLET and president of SMART-TD sent him a letter back at the beginning of February asking him to look into this, because according to the 2008 Federal Rail Safety Act, the Secretary of Transportation can rule on policies like this. So far, we’ve heard nothing from him, and I would like to encourage Secretary Buttigieg to respond to the letter.

Ron Kaminkow: So yeah, once again, Jeff, great stuff there. I’ll just add, if you work in a factory, or a hospital, or lots of other types of jobs where you work shifts, then you sort of understand the nature of shift work. Prior to coming to the railroad, I worked in the healthcare industry and we had some jobs that would rotate. So you might have two weeks of AM and two weeks of PM, or maybe even then two weeks of night shift. And it’s been shown that this plays hell on your emotional, mental, and physical health and wellbeing.

On the railroad outside of the yard, we’re talking about over the road trains between crew change locations. As a general rule, railroad workers in this country who work in trade service have no set schedule. So you don’t even have the pleasure of a set off-day pattern or knowing for the next 14 days, I’m going to be working nights. Because literally one day you’re running the train through the daylight. You don’t tie up. Like Jeff said, you might sit and rot on the locomotive waiting for a ride. And then you finally get to bed. So that when you wake now, you’re on nights.

So it’s literally on a day-to-day basis. You also have no idea, really, when you’re going to start work the next time. Is it going to be after 12 hours? Is it going to be after 14 or 16 hours? In some cases, maybe not for 24. And so literally you have no start times. You have no end times. Oh, and by the way, when you do end your tour of duty, we call it, you’re not back at home. You’re at a motel somewhere out on a strip along an interstate highway, for example. And you really don’t know if you’ll be there for 10, 12, 14, 16, 18 hours. And then once again, you never know when the phone will ring and call you to bring the train back to your home terminal.

And so for those who are doing factory work – And my deepest sympathies for anyone who’s on shifts, let alone rotating shifts – But what we need to understand is on the railroad, you don’t even know when you’re going to work. You have no set off-day patterns. And even though federal law mandates that you get off-days after six straight tours of duty, if it turns out that you don’t have six straight tours of duty that each one starts on a specific calendar day, your six days restart. So you could technically go for weeks and weeks and weeks without an off-day, a scheduled off-day, and have no start time, no end time, and no knowledge whatsoever of when you’re going to go to work and when you’re going to be able to come home. In this environment, things like the Hi-Viz policy just ratchet up the level of exploitation to untenable levels.

Jeff Kurtz: Yeah. And to expound a little bit on what Ron was saying, one of the things that the Federal Railroad Administration, the FRA, and the carriers do is they count your time in a hotel away from home as off-time. Yeah. Yeah. And so, I can’t eat dinner with my family. I can’t mow my lawn. There’s hundreds of things that I can’t do in a hotel room, and there are rules that govern me that are put out by the railroad and put out by the FRA. I think that needs to change. We need to start looking at that time as time on-duty, either on-duty or some other designation. But it is not off-time. This is another thing that adds to the stress and the fatigue, because you’re sitting away from home, your big goal when you’re away from home is to get on a train and get back home. And sometimes, I mean, lineups fail, and that doesn’t happen.

I don’t know. I would love to sit somebody from the FRA down and have a talk with them about some of the things that they need to start looking at. Because we needed to liberalize the policies for attendance and availability instead of tightening these things up. Especially in COVID. I mean, none of this made any sense whatsoever.

Maximillian Alvarez: Right. I mean, it’s one of the things that I think you and I talked about last time, Jeff. It’s like, look, I get that there are types of jobs where there are just more requirements on the workers who fill those jobs because of the nature of the job. So if you work at a hospital, like Ron said. Yeah, I know tons of healthcare workers who have to be on-call over the weekend. That’s kind of the nature of working in the healthcare industry. You don’t know when people are going to get sick or shot or anything like that. So if that is the case, then the workers who have to do that should be fairly compensated. Their humanity should be recognized. Time at home should be built into their schedules. We shouldn’t just be taking advantage of people this way.

Same goes for railroad workers. I can only imagine how lonely it must be to be that far away from your family, to then be stuck, yeah, like in a motel, in the middle of nowhere. And for that to be counting as off-time, it’s like off to do what? Sit here in my hotel or in my motel room, eating a gas station dinner? How does that count as actual time that I get? How does that fit into the eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what you will? What can I will when I’m in that situation?

And I think, again, the real emphasis point here is that we’re not being naive about the particular necessities that certain workers in certain industries have given the nature of the work that they do. But if that’s the case, then you damn sure better build in the necessary features for that type of work so that workers can get rest, they can get time with their family. I’m not the one to answer that, but it damn sure seems like BNSF with this Hi-Viz policy is not doing that. Instead they are just trying to squeeze workers as much as possible. The institution of this Hi-Viz policy feels really draconian in its very nature, but also just very cruel given the fact that railroad workers are already going through this. Then you sort of tighten the screws and say if you don’t abide by this hectic schedule where you don’t actually know when you’re going to start or how long you’re going to be away from home, if you don’t actually follow that, then you get docked and you could get fired.

That seems just incredibly punitive and unnecessary. And then you add onto that that when workers were ready to rebel against the draconian policy and use labor’s greatest power to withhold our labor, the courts blocked it. At the behest of BNSF, the courts blocked workers from striking. So it’s like, what are you supposed to do? And now we’re just hearing these horrifying stories about how people are burning out. I don’t know.

You can tell I’m distressed. I can only imagine how you guys are feeling and how the folks that you’re talking to are feeling. I know we touched on this a bit, but if we could really kind of flesh that out a bit more. What have you been hearing from others since this policy went into effect? Like I said, the courts blocked the strike, saying it would like cause undue harm to BNSF, but they didn’t say shit about the undue harm that the Hi-Viz policy was going to be doing to the workers, or what that was going to do to BNSF’s business to have workers who are exhausted and worn out and quitting. So anyway, what have you been hearing since February 1 when we published that last interview?

Jeff Kurtz: Well, I’m glad that you brought that up, because one of the things that the judge mentioned in his ruling was he was afraid that the supply chains would be irreparably damaged. So since the institution of this policy, from what I’m hearing from the conductors and engineers from all across the country on the BNSF, is the supply chains have been irreparably damaged because of this policy. I mean, we had a judge that knew absolutely nothing about the railroad making a ruling like this. I looked through that ruling and I thought, you can tell this guy doesn’t know anything about the railroad. And I don’t think he wants to know anything about the railroad.

Another thing, and I mentioned this the last time I talked to you, Max, railroaders are governed by rules. I mean, it would be hard to fit all the rule books that they’re responsible for in a small room. They’ve got 964 pages of the code of federal regulations, 567 pages from the general code of operating rules on the BNSF, and I think most railroads, their general code of operating rules are pretty much the same. They have daily bulletins, superintendents notices, and all this stuff can change at a moment’s notice. And these railroaders are responsible for all of these rules. And they’re responsible for high performance on these trains, as far as getting these trains over the road, having them stop where they need to stop to do the work that they need to do. That’s what is expected of them.

Now we have the CEO, Katie Farmer, of BNSF and the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway that came up with this God forsaken policy, and I don’t know who else in management in Fort Worth, their corporate headquarters, that came up with this. But it’s blown up in their faces. No engineer or no conductor out there could do a fraction of the percentage of damage that this policy has done. Why hasn’t Katie Farmer been fired? Why hasn’t Warren Buffet been fired? Why hasn’t anybody from corporate in Fort Worth been fired? I would love to know that, because if it was engineers or conductors that ground this railroad to a halt, I can guarantee you they’d be terminated. And they would probably be looking at some type of criminal prosecution, too.

Ron Kaminkow: So Max, I want to talk just briefly about this whole question of employee retention and recruitment. The railroads are having a hell of a time recruiting new employees and retaining the ones they have. I came to Amtrak as somewhat of a refugee from freight service because of this exact sort of shenanigans. That’s been 18 years now. But I had limited time with both Conrail and Norfolk Southern. As an Amtrak employee, I see endless refugees coming from freight service.

It used to be two years, five years, six or seven. Now I’m seeing guys with 10 and 15 and 20 years fleeing freight service and basically neglecting all those accumulated years of seniority that they have on the carrier they currently work for, and coming to Amtrak, coming to commuter service where the quality of life is better. It’s still a lot of BS we put up with, but the quality of life is generally better. But not just coming to Amtrak and commuter, but leaving the industry altogether. This was unheard of a generation ago. If you had even five years on the railroad and were vested in the railroad retirement system, you were pretty much in for life. And that is not the case today. So the railroad’s got a serious problem. It needs to retain and recruit people.

Now let’s say I was looking for a job right now and I heard the railroad paid pretty good and had a good Cadillac health plan and this thing called railroad retirement. But then I looked into it a little farther, and I found out that the rail industry as a whole, on the class ones, are pushing very hard right now to run these trains with a single employee. This has been one of their goals now for nearly a generation. It is a major issue and a bone of contention in national bargaining with the rail unions at this point. So if you were going to hire in as a conductor trainee and you understood that the railroad had every intention of eliminating the road conductor, this maybe sounds like a bad job to apply for and accept if it’s something that could potentially be abolished in the coming months and years. So not a very good tool for retaining and recruiting at this point. So if the rail industry is listening, I would highly advise in national handling to take this off the table, at least for this round, if you’re serious about retaining and recruiting.

Speaking of national handling, the big unions, the big carriers, which include Union Pacific, BNSF, and the rest of them, are currently at an impasse with the 12 or 13 myriad unions that come to the table in national handling every so often. Once again, you would expect that the carriers would be coming to the unions and say, what creative things can we do in terms of offering incentives? Getting rid of the two-tier system and the entry level rates of pay, increasing training pay, and for that matter, doing away with draconian attendance policies. That would make it easier to retain and recruit employees. But once again, what we see is the industry, which is basically saying to hell with the unions, you’re going to pay bigger copays and deductibles in healthcare. We’re going to get rid of the conductor. We want massive changes in work rules for all the different crafts.

So this is hardly an industry that is serious about retaining and recruiting if they’re attempting to make our lives worse. Anyone coming into the industry is getting this message. In the old days, the way the railroads recruited was largely through networks of existing employees. Sons and daughters, brothers and cousins, and friends of theirs in the neighborhood and stuff. That’s how the word got out. And the railroad was a good job, so they never really had problems retaining and recruiting.

Now that they do, they are actually making it worse because this network is gone. People are not advising their children to get jobs on the railroad. They’re not advising their friends and neighbors or others that they’re aware of who need a good job. I, myself, in good conscience, find it very, very difficult, and for years I advocated people go to work on the railroad, particularly in the freight service. And now I can’t in good conscience, without the caveat that be prepared for this, this, and this, advise a railroad job to anybody. It’s so sad.

Jeff Kurtz: Yeah. And I was a third generation railroader myself. My grandfather hired out in 1937 on the Santa Fe as a conductor. Dad hired out in ’52, and then I hired out in 1974. So there was somebody from my family out of Fort Madison, working Fort Madison, Iowa, between 1937 to 2014. None of my three kids, after what they saw I went through, especially toward the end, none of my three children wanted anything to do whatsoever with the railroad.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, you’re right. I mean, it is really heartbreaking to hear, and also to put into that larger perspective of how working people in general are being treated in this country. Because I’m thinking of the other folks we’re talking to from Amazon, from other manufacturing, from healthcare, education. We are bleeding workers left and right because everyone is getting ground down to dust. This should be unsurprising, because this is what happens when you have a system that views working people not as flesh and blood human beings with lives and who demand and deserve respect and dignity, but as just warm meat bags who can do a certain amount of labor and then be spat out at a moment’s notice because you’re expecting there will always be new batch of warm bodies to come in.

We talked about how Amazon’s turnover rate is 150%. It is part of their business model to take in, chew up, and spit out human bodies. And eventually they’re going to run out of people. This is what we talked about, if Real News viewers remember, when I interviewed one of the teachers or educators in Minneapolis who was on strike last month. If you recall, she said, we are running out of teachers. We can’t retain people. We don’t have enough resources. They are being asked to do too much with too little. How do you expect us to bring people in and convince them to stay here and build a life here? It’s unreasonable.

I think more and more of us are recognizing that in each other’s struggle, which is a hopeful thing, but it’s horrifying and terrible that we’ve had to get to this point where people are so beaten down to realize that. And I guess you guys are the experts, but just to crystallize what you were just saying, Ron, and to maybe contextualize it in reference to the conversation that you and I had last time, Jeff. Because I remember you telling me about one of the worst experiences that you had had on the railroad. When you got into an accident. You’re driving a train that’s a mile long. You can’t stop on a dime, so if someone runs in front of the train, it’s not a pretty picture. And I remember you telling me all the things that you have to do in that situation and how you need your conductor to go down the line to check on the person who was hit or what have you while you’re calling for help and letting dispatch know, so on and so forth.

So you take that side of it. That in situations like that, you need at least two people. You add onto that all these cost-cutting measures that are extending the trains and asking fewer people to carry more freight, which is dangerous, as I think we also talked about, Jeff. The longer the trains go, the more unwieldy they are, the harder it is to conduct a vehicle of that length and heft. So you are increasing the length of trains, which makes things more difficult, could lead to more derailments and so on and so forth. And you are reducing the number of people who are on that train to deal with any issues that come up. Do I have that right, because that seems like a bonkers batshit recipe for disaster?

Jeff Kurtz: Yeah. And we talk about some of the more serious things like derailments, crossing accidents, things like that. But the more mundane day-to-day things, I mean, like you would get signaled beyond a place that you were supposed to work where you would switch out cars. You would have to know what work you had that day. You’d have to stop. Let everybody know. They might thank you. They might not thank you for not running the work. Things like that would happen all the time. Something you might see, we’ve had engineers and conductors that have stopped their train because they’ve seen people in vehicles that were distressed and actually saved these people’s lives. There’s things that you see that you can stop for to be more or less a good Samaritan. That’s why you need at least two people up there.

We talked about this before, Max. When I hired out, there were five people. And then we went four, three, two, and they want to go to one with these incredibly long trains. And that’s another thing that we should talk about at some point, is the fact that these trains are too long and too heavy. I don’t care how many people you put on there, they don’t need to be that size. We need to look at reducing the size of these trains, for not only the safety of the workers, but for the general public.

Ron Kaminkow: So at the end of the day, I think we really, as a society, have to start questioning an industry that is owned privately – And by the way, Max, it’s one of the few countries I am aware of that the rail infrastructure itself is actually in private hands, and it always has been. So people will travel from this country to Japan. I just read of something where a Japanese engineer was docked two minutes pay for being late. I just cannot imagine. My train is late all the time. But was docked two minutes. And at arbitration, he was restored those two minutes pay because it was determined that it was beyond his control. I find this fascinating. This is the way railroads are operating in other parts of the world. And even though some of the vending, the actual operation of trains, has been privatized and contracted out, the infrastructure itself is owned publicly. It’s run as a public utility, the way our highways are in this country, the way our airports are, our air traffic controllers. These are all nationalized in effect.

Same with inland waterways, the Mississippi river, the Missouri, the Ohio, and so forth. These riverways, the locks and dams and so forth are not owned privately. They’re operated publicly. We have to question whether maintaining what really is a sort of outdated, archaic way of railroad infrastructure ownership is best serving our interests. Rail is the most energy efficient means of moving freight and passengers known to humanity. It is also the safest means of moving freight and passengers. It has enormous potential, but yet that potential is being squandered. Like I mentioned earlier in the interview, we’re moving less freight than we did 16 years ago. The Amtrak network is no larger than it was pretty much on day one 50 years ago.

And part of the reason for that is the freight railroad network does not want Amtrak on its rails and fights tooth and nail against any expansion of Amtrak service as a general rule. And so the rail industry itself – And this is ironic – Is providing sort of an impediment to expansion of rail in this country. It’s not acting in our national interest. And when you have just about every shippers group up in arms about the level of service, and they have been since the advent of precision scheduled railroading took hold nationally a few years back, where the railroad workers’ unions are all very, very upset. Amtrak passengers, passenger advocacy groups are very upset with the railroad industry.

We really have to start questioning, in whose interest are the railroads being run for? And like I referenced earlier the cult of the operating ratio, the fixation upon short-term profits, next quarter’s profit picture, stock price dividends, and so forth. I just read an article. Keith Creel, the CEO of Canadian Pacific actually had the audacity to issue a statement. In Canada, they’re at an impasse with the unions of the operating crafts. There was almost a strike but they agreed to go to arbitration. Well, Keith Creel said railroad worker compensation has increased 43% in the last 15 years, or whatever it was. Well, the unions fired back that Keith Creel’s compensation has gone up 926% in that same period. So who is he to throw rocks?

So anyway, the point being that if the rail industry’s prime motivation, and now becoming almost its sole motivation, is delivering wealth on a grand scale to those who already are rich, we really have to start questioning, is this the kind of rail industry that we want? And for that matter, is this the kind of society and the kind of economy? Is it meeting the needs of the general members of society? And if the answer is no, and it seems to be more and more that that is the answer, we need to start reconsidering a whole new model of economic operation.

Jeff Kurtz: We should be talking about, right now, using the rails to decarbonize our transportation system. Ron and I belong to several different groups that are attempting to do that in Iowa. I belong to the BlueGreen Alliance that is looking at sustainable jobs, the railroad being one of them. We could do almost magical things if we would look at the railroads this way. If we would look at electrification. If we would look to service more rural areas where we can spread out the wealth.

One of the things that I talked about during the era of COVID is that if we really want to social distance, we should look at social distance on a far larger scale. And what better way to do that than to use the railroads to bring prosperity back to rural areas? So like I said, we could have half a dozen shows just discussing this. Instead, we’re discussing this garbage. Like Ron said, here we are, this self-inflicted wound. The people responsible are going to be rewarded, and the people that have suffered under this, they’re going to keep suffering under it.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, no. I think that’s well and depressingly put. I mean, but again, all the more reason that I’m incredibly grateful to you guys and to Railroad Workers United for all the work that you do and the other groups that you’re affiliated with for raising these issues, especially when, as we said, so many current employees at places like BNSF cannot speak out about this. I mean, I’ve gotten emails from family members after our last report, deathly afraid of even saying anything over an email lest they, or their spouse, or their father, or something like that, be penalized for that. That is not a healthy situation, and we should all be really raising the alarm bells about that. We should be doing everything we can to build solidarity with our siblings working on the railroads, to connect their struggles to the other struggles that we are focusing on.

And I guess in that vein, I know I’ve kept you guys long enough, but I could talk to you for days. So I would really just say to everyone, if you want to keep up to date on this, you should really be following Railroad Workers United, because I think they’ve been an invaluable resource in that regard. But I guess I wanted to ask you guys, by way of wrapping up, what folks watching and listening can do to show solidarity with railroad workers, not just at BNSF, but across the country?

Jeff Kurtz: Thank you for that, Max. One of the things that we’re doing, May the 15th, Fort Madison, Iowa. That’s a Sunday. Right on the Mississippi River, we’ve got the Amtrak Depot as a backdrop. At 3:00 we’re having a rally for BNSF workers. If you want to do something, if you are around Fort Madison, Iowa, it’s in the Southeast corner of Iowa right next to the Missouri-Illinois border. If you want to go to a high energy rally, come. We’re putting together a list of speakers right now. Tentatively planned, the head of the Iowa Federation of Labor, Charlie Wishman. We’ve got our local labor chapter president Penny Logsdon will be speaking. I’ll be speaking. The workers themselves aren’t going to be there because they’re scared to death, but boy, they’re really egging this on. We will be getting into some specifics at that rally.

Hopefully we’re going to have more rallies after that, and we would encourage anybody in this administration to come to this rally and talk to these workers. We could arrange for you to have conversations. Secretary Buttigieg, I’d love to see you there. Secretary Walsh, please come. You’re going to get an earful, but I think anything that you could do to help these people would be greatly appreciated. Other than that, stay tuned. We’ll be doing other things. I think what the workers are doing right now is really making an impact with some of the federal agencies. Let’s just hope it’s before somebody gets killed.

Ron Kaminkow: I got a few suggestions, Max. For starters, people should visit the Railroad Workers United website. It’s www.railroadworkersunited.org. There will be a little popup box that comes up and you can fill that out real quick, and then you’ll be subscribed to our free news and information service. We come out with a weekly bulletin every Tuesday morning at 5:00 AM Pacific. It’s very informative with news of the rail industry, all the stuff we’ve just been talking about. Hi-Viz precision schedule railroading, Amtrak and so forth.

So that’s one way that people can keep informed. Specifically, I’ll mention an article. If folks are interested, they may want to check out this article that will actually appear in next Tuesday’s rendition of our weekly news summary. I did have it up here and… Here it is. So if you Google “The Game Has Changed,” Union Pacific locomotive engineer Michael Paul Lindsey just wrote a fascinating piece. It pretty much covers almost everything we just talked about from a rank and file worker’s perspective as an engineer and his discontent with the industry. Like I was saying earlier, yeah, the game has totally changed. The rail industry apparently can no longer get away with these high levels of exploitation for all sorts of reasons that were mentioned. I would highly recommend that, Max. I just sent you an email with that link. It’s worth reading over what brother Lindsey has to say.

And let’s see. Last but not least. As I mentioned, the rail industry is at an impasse with the various unions. It could come to a national strike. This hasn’t happened since 1991. We’re usually ordered back to work by Congress, and then we are subject to something called a presidential emergency board. There’s lots and lots of convoluted alleyways we have to navigate through the Railway Labor Act, but there could conceivably be a national strike this summer. So everyone is urged to keep your ear to the rail. And if there is a strike, most likely if you live in a town of any size with a railroad traversing it, there probably will be a picket line and demonstration down at the local terminal. So feel free to grab a picket sign and come down and picket in solidarity, even if it only lasts for 12 hours, which is often the case, it would be great to see members of the community and other unions come down and join us on the picket line.

Maximillian Alvarez: So that is Jeff Kurtz and Ron Kaminkow. Jeff was a 40-year railroad 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 Railroad Workers United in the local labor chapter of the Iowa Federation of Labor.

Ron is currently serving as general secretary of Railroad Workers United. Prior to hiring out as a brakeman with Conrail in 1996, he served as president of AFSCME Local 634 in Madison, Wisconsin. In 2005, Ron helped to found Railroad Operating Crafts United, which was an RWU predecessor. He’s a former brakeman, conductor, and engineer for Conrail and later NS in Chicago. He formerly worked for Amtrak in Milwaukee and Chicago. He currently is working as an Amtrak engineer in Reno where he is the vice president of BLET Local 51.

Ron, Jeff, thank you so much for all that you do, and thank you so much for joining me today,

Jeff Kurtz: Max, thank you. And thank you to Real News Network for shining a spotlight on this issue. I can’t thank you enough.

Maximillian Alvarez: Truly my honor, guys. To all of you watching and listening, thank you so much for caring. 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


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