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December 2019

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Rail Workers' Safety, Jobs in Jeopardy as
Precision Scheduled Railroading Expands

An efficiency scheme being adopted by most large freight railroads threatens the safety and job security of members in the IBEW's railroad branch, and International President Lonnie R. Stephenson is appealing to the Transportation Department to take a closer look at the practice and its potentially dangerous outcomes.

"We are seriously concerned about the long-term effects of 'precision scheduled railroading' on the rail workforce and on services as a whole," Stephenson wrote in an October letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. "We ask for robust analysis and monitoring of the safety of PSR operations."

PSR, which was first experimented with on the Canadian National railroad, is a business strategy that calls for consolidating rail services, cutting craft headcount by the hundreds and deferring equipment and facility maintenance, all in a rush to slash companies' operating ratios — that is, the difference between the amount of money a railroad makes and the amount it spends on operations.

In the U.S., CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific have been implementing PSR over the last 18 months, something the IBEW's Railroad Department believes is the continuation of a dangerous philosophical shift away from the freight rail industry's longstanding objectives.

"These railroads are pursuing profit at any cost, even when the effort seriously risks the safety of workers and the public at large and hurts customer service and jobs," said Al Russo, an international representative in that department. "Activist investors love this. It's lining their pockets at the expense of everyone else. PSR is reducing operating ratios from the 80% range to around 50%, but at what cost?"

With most large U.S. railroads actually reporting increases in net income and traffic between the first quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, "it makes PSR look like a shallow attempt to boost quarterly returns by cutting every available corner on labor, safety and service," Russo said.

In reality, he said, the railroads are using PSR as an excuse to lay off IBEW members and rail workers in other crafts at an alarming pace, leaving the employees lucky enough to have kept their jobs struggling to deal with heavier and longer trains, maintenance reductions and closed facilities.

"As the railroads are letting critical equipment degrade and deteriorate, many of our members are forced to work in the unsafe conditions that result," said Jim Meyer, who also serves as an international representative in the Railroad Department. Managers are demanding that the shrunken workforce spread out to cover for vacancies, he said, which often means they are taking on tasks well outside of their craft and experience.

"Think about how scary that is," Meyer said. "Workers from other trades are being ordered by management to perform electrical work that they are in no way trained for or qualified to do."

Mandatory overtime is also on the rise, he said, and that's more bad news for an industry that's historically been plagued by reports of accidents brought on by chronic employee fatigue.

"And, of course, they aren't allowed to refuse overtime or sign off on incomplete work, even on the grounds that doing so could risk their safety or the safety of other employees and the public," Meyer said.

With workers frequently told to skip train maintenance or inspections in favor of rushing PSR-optimized trains into service, Russo worries about the repercussions as the depleted workforce tries to keep up with an increasingly demanding workload.

"Our members who are working on the front lines fully expect that workplace accidents, equipment breakdowns and even derailments will increase under PSR," Russo said.

Rail customers, too, are feeling PSR's effects. Consolidation of service locations is leading some railroads to refuse to service for some routes and shippers, including rural business customers for whom rail has been the sole freight transportation option for generations.

Some railroads, though, have yet to climb aboard the PSR bandwagon, Russo said. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is not ruling out deploying PSR in the future, but for now it is focusing on investing in and expanding its shipping business.

"BNSF seems to understand that it's hard to cut service and still retain quality workers and paying customers," he said.

To be clear, Stephenson said, the IBEW does not object to railroads' pursuit of precision or profitability.

"What we fear is that, without some sort of oversight, railroads will continue to use PSR to trade safety for profits at the expense of workers and the public at large," he said. "Our hope is that Secretary Chao and the DOT will take our letter to heart and step in to keep that from happening."


For now, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is investing in its shipping business rather than adopting an efficiency scheme, embraced by some other large U.S. railroads, that risks worker and public safety.

Credit: Creative Commons / Flickr user Matthews-Photography

Search for Fairness Leads
Florida Battery Recycling Employees to Tampa Local

Many of the workers at Gopher Resource's battery and recycling plant in Tampa, Fla., were perplexed by the company's message after it was sold last year. They were a little angry, too.

Gopher was acquired by Energy Capital Partners, a New Jersey-based private equity firm, in June 2018. Soon after, company officials launched a "One Gopher" campaign to the workforce, emphasizing company pride and reduction of safety violations.

That was all well and good. But workers at the company's other plant in Eagan, Minn., are represented by the Teamsters. The Florida employees didn't have a union.

Why couldn't they have their own representation?

"If it's 'One Gopher,' we want to be treated like the other plant," said Britan Glenn, who has worked at the Tampa facility for three years and is now a kettle operator. "The other plant is union and has been that way for a long time."

Glenn and others learned the Minnesota plant had job classifications — something the Tampa plant did not — and employees understood the requirements to receive a promotion or a boost in pay. That was missing in Tampa, where assignments often were made based on whether an individual supervisor liked a particular employee, he said.

They also learned that an entry-level employee in Minnesota made more than a lead man in Tampa, Glenn said. Even with the higher cost of living, that struck many of the Florida workers as odd.

"Once we started showing people that, they got right on board," he said. "They were like, 'We'll sign that card.'"

After failed attempts in the past, the Gopher employees voted 137-87 for representation by Tampa Local 108. Officers were scheduled to be elected in November and negotiations for a first contract are on the horizon.

"Like anything else, it's all about educating people and teaching them what their rights are and what a union can do for them," Local 108 assistant business manager and organizer Chris Parsels said of the victory. "That's all we do. Just try to lead them in the right direction. They had to have the desire to do it."

Parsels and Business Manager Doug Bowden, along with other Local 108 officials, saw that desire early. A previous effort by Local 108 to organize the Tampa plant fell short in 2016, but it wasn't forgotten by those employees. One walked in unannounced to the Local 108 office after the sale asking for certification cards. He returned the signed cards one week later, took some more and got those signed.

Yet, despite those efforts, it looked for a time like the drive might stall. Parsels said only about 57% of the plant's employees had signed cards. Like most organizers, he wanted it to be at least 65% before asking the National Labor Relations Board to certify a vote.

At the urging of Glenn and others, he asked for a vote anyway.

"Our business manager told us, 'If they think they can get it done, who are we to stand in their way?'" Parsels said. "We explained the consequences. We told them if it was a 'no' vote, they couldn't even talk to another union for at least a year. But they were confident they could win."

Glenn said the organizing effort was slowed by the fact that he and others had to reach out to their colleagues in secret. Managers regularly held meetings discouraging the union. He and others approached fellow workers discreetly during breaks. The plant has 12-hour shifts around the clock, making it difficult for some employees to meet outside of work.

With that in mind, winning with 65% of the vote was impressive. Glenn said he's made it a priority to seek out those who voted against representation to tell them their input still is valuable during contract negotiations.

"The company was under the impression this is all about money," he said. "It's not. It's about equal opportunity. When I apply for a promotion for a job, I want to walk out feeling like I've been given a fair shot at it."

Fifth District lead organizer Kathy Smith, who was also part of the 2016 drive at Gopher, said it was obvious the employees were fired up from the start.

"We had awesome [volunteers on the organizing committee] that helped keep people together," she said. "That really made it a tight group."

Fifth District International Representative Joseph Skinner, assisted in the organizing effort, said the employees had done much of the work before he even got involved.

"It was a successful campaign because the VOCs took control and did the work," Skinner said. "These people took ownership of it. I don't think anyone could have stopped it even if they wanted to."

Challenges remain. Florida is a right-to-work state, so even after negotiating a first contract, Glenn, Parsels and others must convince employees in the bargaining unit to become Local 108 members.

Smith, who lives in the Tampa area, said the power of IBEW membership will soon become apparent to members of the new bargaining unit.

"I've been an IBEW member since 1972 and I know how blessed I've been to be a part of this great union," Smith said. "Whenever I help get a unit organized, I know how blessed they're going to be. Their future is so much brighter now. They've helped change their lives for the better."


Britan Glenn, yellow shirt, and other newly-elected representatives of the Gopher Industries bargaining unit are joined by Tampa, Fla., Local 108 assistant business manager Chris Parsels, far left, and Fifth District lead organizer Kathy Smith, far right.

Ohio Member Turns Fly Fishing Passion
into Dream Trip, Television Appearance

Like many skilled trades workers, Paul Hughes wondered how he would make ends meet following the economic collapse in 2008. Construction came to a near standstill in his hometown, so the Columbus, Ohio, Local 683 member became a traveler and took to the road.

Not only did the experience provide a financial boost, it led Hughes to rediscover a love of the outdoors he had as a child. He was introduced to fly fishing while working in Wyoming.

That turned into a passion, and a decade later, it has led to an adventure that was televised nationally.

Hughes traveled to Mexico in February for a fly fishing trip off the Yucatan Peninsula that was featured this October in an episode of "Brotherhood Outdoors," the Union Sportsmen's Alliance series that profiles union members on fishing and hunting trips to legendary locations.

"It was the trip of a lifetime," said Hughes, a journeyman inside wireman and 24-year member of Local 683. "It was amazing, and it all comes back to union membership. That's astounding."

The show aired in mid-October on the Sportsman Channel, which is available on a variety of cable and satellite providers, including DirecTV, Cablevision and Comcast. Viewers can stream the show at

"This is something you might do when you get your house paid off and when you retire," Hughes said. "For me to be down there while still paying the bills was like winning the lottery."

Hughes began working as a traveler in the Ohio River Valley, not far from where he grew up in southern Ohio. He wired and did maintenance work on industrial chimneys as an employee of Bronder Technical Services in Prospect, Pa.

He worked four 12-hour days each week, so Hughes had time to get back into fishing, mostly in nearby West Virginia. It also provided a distraction from dangerous work. Hughes and his co-workers sometimes were suspended in the air nearly 1,000 feet above the ground in the dark smokestacks.

"You couldn't ask for a better place to fish. And honestly, it probably kept me out of trouble," Hughes said with a laugh. "I had a lot of time on my hands when I wasn't working."

After that assignment, he went to work for Chicago-based F.E. Moran installing smoke alarm systems at gas compression plants in Wyoming. One weekend, he drove to nearby Grand Teton National Park and got introduced to fly fishing.

He quickly fell in love with it.

"It's something about the action between the fisherman and the rod," Hughes said. "You have more control over that line in your hand than when you're spinning a reel. It's a more intimate approach to it.

"A well-placed fly is effortless, just like a good golf swing," he added. "You know it when you do it and you feel it. There is more of an impact than I expected when you toss a fly that weighs maybe a gram and the fish explodes after it just as it hits the water. It's more immediate. It's more direct. It's more of a shock when the fish comes up to the line."

The economy improved and Hughes eventually returned to Columbus. In late 2017, he responded to an online advertisement asking union members interested in appearing on the show to apply.

Hughes wrote the application essay and learned nearly a year later he would be on his way to Mexico with Union Sportsmen's Alliance Conservation and Communications Director Forrest Parker for a four-day trip.

"Ascension Bay is not an easy place to fish," Parker said. "It's quite demanding, in fact. Constant winds test casting skills and hours of standing on a rolling boat deck tax both your physical stamina and mental focus. But stepping out of your comfort zone is a big part of what makes a great adventure so great."

Hughes and his companions fished for bonefish, baby tarpon and snook in deeper waters and windier conditions than he usually faces in the United States, he said.

"To judge where a fish is while dealing with that cross wind is not an easy task," he said. "It's extremely challenging."

Television crews also traveled to Columbus to film segments with Hughes, including a trip to his local fly shop, and to Local 683's hall, where other members were interviewed. Hughes credits fellow member Jeff Deckard and recently retired member Doug Stewart for organizing an active Union Sportsmen's Alliance chapter at Local 683.

"Everyone here was so happy and excited when Paul was chosen to appear on the show," Business Manager Ed Moore said. "He's a valued member who brings energy and excellence to everything he does both on and off the job. I'm not sure we could have had a better representative of our great union in the great outdoors than him."

The alliance promotes outdoor activities and encourages union members to volunteer their time to projects that conserve wildlife habitats, improve the nation's parks and participate in programs that introduce children to the outdoors. IBEW members can sign up for a free bronze-level membership at


Paul Hughes, far right, watches as Union Sportsmen's Alliance Conservation and Communications Director Forrest Parker casts his reel during their trip to Ascension Bay.