Dustin Chambers/The New York Times

Freight rail workers in Atlanta, Sept. 15, 2022. To defuse a labor dispute that brought the nation to the brink of a potentially catastrophic railroad strike, negotiators had to resolve a key issue: schedules that workers say were punishing, upending their personal lives and driving colleagues from the industry.

November 8, 2022

ILR Faculty and Students Share Their Opinions on the Possibility of a Railroad Worker Strike

Print More

With recent tensions between American rail workers and rail companies, faculty and students from the Industrial and Labor Relations school have begun to discuss the increasing possibility of a railroad worker strike.

Railroad workers threatened to strike in September in response to inflexible policies that leave them overworked and unable to take paid sick days. For example, unions such as the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen claim that workers were forced to take on 12-hour shifts with little to no notice, affecting their ability to take days off work when sick. 

In order to avoid the possibility of an economic crisis brought on by the strike, the National Mediation Board met with union representatives and came to a proposed deal: rail employees will get a 24 percent wage increase over a five-year period, with immediate payouts of $11,000. The deal will also allot extra paid sick days for workers. 

Despite this, a railroad strike is still a possibility. Several unions have recently accepted the deal, but other unions are still unsatisfied. The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, which represents more than 6,000 rail workers, recently voted against the deal set forward by the board: the workers they represent are unhappy with the current deal and want it revised in order to include more flexibility and better conditions.

Some students of the ILR school agree with unsatisfied unions that the deal is not enough, including Suraj Parikh ’26. 

“Although the pay increases are a win for workers, the new contract is absolutely not enough. Right now some railroad workers don’t get weekends, and they have to schedule their time off months in advance, which is completely unreasonable when they need time off for things like medical or family emergencies,” Parikh said. 

Prof. Bradford Bell, the William J. Conaty Professor in Strategic Human Resources at the ILR School, shares a similar sentiment that the package offered to workers does not provide enough.  

“The fact that a number of bargaining units continue to hold out and reject the proposal suggests that it’s probably not enough,” Bell said. “I think they’re looking at the broader package of wages and other benefits that they’re offering and it seems like the sticking point is the paid time off there; they really want more of that. It seems like what’s been offered so far is not meeting their expectations.”

ILR student Meghana Kandarpa ’23 agrees that workers should still advocate for more than what is being given to them in the current proposed deal, including additional kinds of benefits. 

“They should push for more… back pay and guaranteed medical care. For most railroad workers, the job requires that you are always on call 24/7. This means that even though there are higher amounts of pay, there are still massive amounts of burdens for railroad workers to be able to even get any care,” Kandarpa said. 

Those who oppose a strike argue that a strike will potentially lose all the concessions that have been gained, while simultaneously resulting in great economic losses as railroads are essential to the infrastructure of the American economy. Yet, Carson Taylor ’23 claims that strikes are a necessary power that workers should exercise if they desire.

“It is not my place, or anyone else’s, to say whether the railroaders should strike or not,” said Taylor. “All American workers should have the right to strike because striking is the most crucial form of leverage workers have over their employers. Without the existence of strikes, workers’ rights would be far worse in this country. If workers believe a strike is necessary to apply pressure for a better contract, then they should strike.”

The railroad organizations themselves also have the incentive to listen to their workers, not only to prevent the economic damage of a strike but to improve their workplaces as well.

“Your best employees don’t feel like they’re being heard if they feel like they don’t have a voice in an organization. They’re likely to leave or if they stay, they’re likely to be dissatisfied and probably put forth less effort to the bare minimum,” Bell said. “So I think, from an employer standpoint, it’s worth listening to employees to understand their viewpoints to see how as an organization, we can attract the best people, retain the best people, and motivate them for higher performance. Certainly, employers can’t concede to everything they want, but trying to find that common ground is important.”

Yet, some ILR students also emphasize the importance of considering the perspective of the individual workers rather than factors like economic impacts.

“I’m frustrated to see most media narratives about the prospect of a rail strike forefronting the impact it’d have on consumers — many outlets have printed stories that mostly panic about the possibility of rising food or gas prices,” said Nick Wilson ’26. “This narrative ignores the fact that rail workers and their families are also a part of the economy, and are currently struggling to meet their needs.” 

The struggle of railroad workers indicates an important shift in labor and the American workforce on a broader level, making it an even more pressing issue. 

“If they’re demanding more from corporate America, they’re part of the wave of all workers demanding more from corporate America from railroad workers to Starbucks workers,” said Patricia Campos-Medina, the executive director of the Worker Institute.  “A success for the railroad workers will embolden other workers in other economies to continue to do the same thing, so it’s sort of like they’re inspiring each other.”