After beingÂ called outÂ by labor activists and progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders for paying poverty wages despite receiving tax breaks and raking in billions of dollars, Amazon has caved to the pressure andÂ announcedÂ it will offer all its workers a $15-per-hour minimum wage starting next month. Now, a new coalition of workers and community leaders is taking aim at another major player in the logistics industry:Â the railroads.
Class I railroads like CSX, Norfolk Southern and BNSF benefit fromÂ billions in taxpayer subsidiesÂ and areÂ reporting high profits.Â Yet the people who transport their rail crews between trains, cities, hotelsÂ and homes are paid low wages and receive few benefits. To keep costs down and evade liability, the railroads use subcontractors like Hallcon and Professional Transportation Inc. (PTI) to hire their crew drivers.
On September 27, several dozen rail crew drivers with the United Electrical Workers (UE), United Steelworkers (USW), Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) and United Public Services Employees Union (UPSEU) protested outside aÂ conferenceÂ of railroad executives in downtown Chicago. The drivers and community allies are calling on the Class I railroads to implement responsible contractor policies to make companies like Hallcon and PTI pay a $15-an-hour minimum wage and offer decent benefits.
â€śWeâ€™re dedicated drivers out here,â€ť said Devin Ragland, a PTI driver with USW District 7. â€śItâ€™s not fair that weâ€™re out here from sundown to sunup, running these crews back and forth where they need to go, and then we get mistreated when it comes time for pay.â€ť
Ragland and the other drivers were joined by Cook County Commissioner and congressional candidate JesĂşs â€śChuyâ€ť Garcia, who called for an â€śend to the poverty wages in the rail yards.â€ť
â€śI join your voices in saying to these railroad companies that they should adopt responsible contractor policies to ensure that the prosperity that they are experiencing is shared with all of the workers in the industry,â€ť Garcia told the drivers.
UE, USW, SMARTÂ and UPSEU represent crew drivers from coast to coast. UE has been organizing Hallcon drivers nationwide for the past several years, recentlyÂ winning a union electionÂ at the company that added 650 more drivers from 8 states into the unionâ€™s ranks, bringing the total number of UE-represented drivers at the company to nearly 1,700.Â
â€śEverywhere we go at Hallcon, people are at minimum wage or just above,â€ť UE International Representative J Burger toldÂ In These Times.Â Â Drivers say they earn so little that many are forced to rely on public assistance.
UE is currently negotiating a new master contract at Hallcon. Burger said the company is resisting demands for living wages, instead arguing that drivers should only get a one-time bonus or miniscule raises of between 15 to 20 cents per year.
â€śIâ€™ve been told we were offered 21 cents. I canâ€™t make a phone call with 21 cents,â€ť driver and UE member Vickie Bogovich said on September 27. â€śIs that all Iâ€™m worth? I donâ€™t think so.â€ť
â€śTheyâ€™re offering us pennies and we need dollars,â€ť added Clarence Hill, a Hallcon driver who serves as Chief Steward of UE Local 1177. Hill said he is paid only $12 an hour after 8 years on the job.
The drivers areÂ on-call at all hours of the day, required to hop in a company van at a momentâ€™s notice to shuttle a rail crew from one location to another. Frequently, they wait hours at a time before finally getting a call. After one trip, they often have to wait several more hours for the next call, sometimes stretching their work day to 24 hours or more. Drivers are only paid for their driving time, not for the hours they spend waiting.
Burger noted this â€śstretch outâ€ť is not only unfair to drivers, but it also endangers the rail crews they transport, putting them at the mercy of fatigued drivers operating on little to no sleep. In contract talks, UE is fighting for on-call pay and more compact hours when the company is unable to put drivers to work.Â
Additionally, the union is demanding improved benefits, including paid time off and affordable health insurance. â€śWeâ€™re trying to make the job something people can actually live by,â€ť Burger toldÂ In These Times.
UEâ€™s current contract at Hallcon was originally set to expire in August, but has been extended to October 21. Meanwhile, USW, SMART and UPSEUâ€”which represent drivers at both Hallcon and PTIâ€”will also see some of their current contracts expire later this fall, setting up the potential for a nationwide strike that could disrupt retail freight in time for the busy holiday shopping season.
The unions have been increasinglyÂ coordinatingÂ efforts over the past year, trying to â€śhave a united front approach,â€ť Burger explained. â€śWeâ€™re all talking about raising the standards in the industry. Weâ€™re united for the betterment of the drivers.â€ťÂ
In addition to Chuy Garcia, the drivers also have the solidarity of the rail crews they shuttle. Other union workers in the railroad industryâ€”including from theÂ Brotherhood of the Maintenance and Way EmployeesÂ and theÂ Chicago All Rail Craft Coalitionâ€”joined Thursdayâ€™s protest.
â€śThe labor movement was built on the simple concept that an injury to one is an injury to all,â€ť Mark Burrows ofÂ Railroad Workers United, a coalition of rank-and-file rail workers from across North America, told the drivers. â€śWeâ€™re doing all that we can to educate our coworkers and get them behind this struggle.â€ť
This article was originally published at In These Times on October 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author:Â Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.