Lincoln railway workers rally for better work conditions, wages

Railway workers rallied outside of the BNSF Railway offices on Sunday.
Published: Jul. 10, 2022 at 5:49 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Railway workers rallied outside of the BNSF Railway offices on Sunday. Participants marched and chanted around the Lincoln Station, advocating for more benefits, a pay raise and a new contract.

“We’ve gone too long without proper pay raises, proper benefits, sick leave,” said Jakob Forsgren, local chairman of Lodge 1320 for the Brotherhood of Maitenance Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “We’re fed up with the way that we’ve been treated the last couple of years in these contract negotiations, and it’s clear to me that I’m not the only one who has those feelings. So we’re just here to kind of show the railroads that enough is enough.”

It’s been approximately three years since railway employees received a raise. Many at the rally expressed concerns of how their current wages are not keeping up with inflation and the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other concerns Forsgren brought up was inadequate compensation for travel expenses, lowering healthcare protection, reducing sick leave and working long hours in the elements to make up for fewer employees.

“We don’t have enough manpower right now,” Forsgren said. “These guys are being run ragged. They’re running five, six, seven days a week, 12 hours a day with very little relief, and just not enough people.”

Forsgren said the hope is for President Joe Biden to form a Presidential Emergency Board by July 18. The purpose of the executive board would be to form a settlement with railway union members. Congress will get involved if a settlement cannot be made.

Greg Regan, the president of Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, said the larger railroad companies have made $60 billion with 45,000 furloughs in the years leading up to the pandemic. He would like to have a ratified contract by September, but this would depend on swiftly the process moves.

“We are in the teeth of a very difficult contract negotiation,” Regan said. “We’re about to see some real movement in D.C., whether it be a presidential emergency board or in moving this to the next process. Hopefully, we’re just educating people about what issues at stake are and what these workers are fighting for.”

More than 100 people came to the demonstration. Their goal was to gather enough people to wrap around the Lincoln Station building. Many brought signs, gave speeches and led chants.

Paul Bellows, a Union Pacific machine operator, brought his family along with him.

“I work on the road, so I’m away from home more than I am home,” Bellows said. “When I do have time at home, I have to mow the lawn, get doctor’s appointments in, get my car serviced- so when I am home, I’m not truly spending time at home with my family.”

Bellows said that Union Pacific workers get two weeks of vacation after their first year, but they need to work eight years before getting a third week of vacation.

Speakers and politicians came to greet those who could make it to the rally.

U.S. Rep. Don Bacon spoke at the rally this morning, and he also supports two-man crews in the railway industry.

One-man crews has been a talking point throughout the railway workers and unions conflict. The railworkers said it’s safer to have a conductor and an engineer operate the train together. The railway companies say having a stationed conductor while the engineer runs the train creates more predictable work schedules for employees.

A couple hours later, State Sen. Carol Blood made an appearance and gave a speech as well. She expressed support for the attendees and shared her roots with them, saying that her grandfather worked in the railway business.

More railway workers and speakers stepped up on stage to share their stories throughout the day.

What happens next, depends on if an executive board is formed by the end of this week. Otherwise, the railway workers would have the chance to “exercise self-help” or strike after their cool-down period ends.

“The number one thing we can do to fix the supply chain crisis is to give these workers a fair contract, give them a good contract, that will help them retain more people, recruit more people and will make sure that we can actually start moving goods in the way that our country demands and our economy demands,” Regan said. “We cannot separate our broader economic challenges from what these workers are facing because they are delivering for this country.”

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