When about 75 to 100 Burlington Northern railroad workers from across the Midwest rallied at the corporate offices of Berkshire Hathaway at 36th and Farnam on Friday morning, their calls for paid sick leave and the end of “Precision scheduled railroading,” a business model railroaders frame as cost-cutting, found one answer from the corporation.
A representative came out and asked them to back away from the building because it was private property.
“When they see our assembled power, they’re going to do any petty thing to try and make us feel scared,” Ash Anderson, a union staff assistant, said. “That’s all they can do to put us off what we’re here to do. We’ll respect what they asked us to do, but it’s not going to scare us.”
Workers from Georgia to Minnesota gathered in Omaha to call for paid sick days for their division of the union, which covers the Burlington Northern railroad. Employed by BNSF Railway, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, the Burlington railroaders rallied for two hours and also saw support from a local teamsters union branch.
Tom Steinbrenner, who attended the rally from Northern Minnesota and works for the union primarily with the Canadian system employees, held a megaphone and led several of the day’s chants, including “Corporate greed has got to go” and “No justice. No peace.” But the chants primarily centered around the issue of paid sick days.
“We work up north, and in all the climates, we have extreme cold and extreme heat and it wears on the body. You get sick,” Steinbrenner said. “You call in sick, on Canadian Pacific now, it’s an unexcused absence unless you use a vacation day. In my opinion it is not a vacation day if you’re sick.”
The result of this, according to Steinbrenner, is a precarity felt by union members whenever they or a loved one becomes ill and the risk of financial disparity as a result. According to the rallying union members, 10 days of paid sick leave would cost Berkshire Hathaway less than 1% of its profit.
“It’s hard work. Most of those who like it enjoy it, love it. You couldn’t pay the average person double or triple what we make. Railroaders are a special breed,” said Thomas Kirby, a union organizer who came to Omaha from Indiana. “You may have two weeks out of the year that you sleep in your own bed.”
For Reese Saulter, vice president of the south region for BWMED, who attended the rally from Atlanta, said paid sick leave was a matter of respect and dignity. He said it was the “right thing to do.”
Along with Steinbrenner, Saulter also initiated some chants early on during the rally. That was before the yelling wore out his voice and he needed to step out for a moment to let it recover.
“I show a lot of passion because we need to fight for all that we’re gonna get,” Saulter said. “Their [corporate] workers already get 80 hours of paid sick leave. We have zero. It shouldn’t be at this point because it’s the right thing to do at this time.”
During negotiations, members noted that BNSF were willing to offer paid sick leave because other concessions were made. Saulter responded that the other three rail carriers had already negotiated paid sick leave with unions without BNSF’s demanded concessions.
Aaron Kemp, a self-described “rank and file” member from Galesburg, Illinois, said the possibility of infecting others or being infected while working was why paid sick days mattered to him.
“We work together in close quarters. So, what happened through the pandemic, it still happens today, it’s that people are compelled to work when they are sick,” Kemp said. “In my view, in the long run, that’s going to cost the railroads more money because they’re infecting more members because people are financially compelled to come to work when they are unwell.”
The absence of paid sick days impacts not only the railroaders themselves but also their spouses and families, who, without paid time off, are left uncared for. Amanda Beardsley, who is married to railroader Greg Beardsley, spoke in front of the ralliers Friday.
Beardsley recounted the story of when the COVID pandemic hit, the small-town Illinois nursing home where she works was able to provide her sick days. Now, she is asking Berkshire Hathaway to do the same.
Along with demands for paid sick leave, members also demanded an end to the “Precision scheduled railroading” business model. Steinbrenner said that ending this business model would restore track integrity and prevent derailments like the one seen in East Palestine.
“Precision scheduled railroading is nothing more than a buzz term for shareholders. There’s nothing precision about it. There’s nothing scheduled about it,” Steinbrenner said. “All it is, is cost-cutting. It’s a cost-cutting measure. To cost-cut, they lengthen the trains. And with track maintenance, they cut the maintenance crews.”
PSR’s cost-cutting means for Steinbrenner that defects cannot be dealt with pro-actively, instead leaving railroaders always playing defense against what accidents and derailments could occur.
“We all told them when PSR started: it’s not if, it’s when,” Steinbrenner said. “It’s when we have a major derailment when a community is getting wiped off, and now we’re starting to see this happen.”
At noon, Anderson thanked everyone for coming out and wished them well on their drive back home. Many drove six, eight or 10 hours to be in Omaha. People did start to leave, but not before taking photos of Anderson with his marching drum, which he used to support chants at the rally.
“Our workers work 24/7 year round. They’ve done difficult work in dangerous environments to keep our country safe,” Anderson said. “Paid sick days are not something we should have to give up something for. We feel that BSNF should provide these paid sick days that our people need to stay safe and healthy as we work.”