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A freight train is seen in Orlando, Florida

A freight train is seen in Orlando, Florida on September 14, 2022. (Photo: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

While Fighting Workers, Railroads Made Over $10 Billion in Stock Buybacks

"Our research shows just how far railroad executives will go to funnel record profits to their shareholders—even if that means stagnant wages, inhumane attendance policies, and throwing our supply chain into further turmoil," said one Groundwork Collaborative analyst.

Kenny Stancil

At the same time they have fought to deny sick days and other vital benefits to workers in the freight industry, rail carrier executives have been rewarding shareholders with billions of dollars in stock buybacks and dividend bumps.

"It's time for these railroad companies to start prioritizing the safety and well-being of their workers—or we'll all pay the price."

According to Railroad Operators: Bad for Workers, Good for Investors, a collection of data compiled by the Groundwork Collaborative and shared with Common Dreams on Monday, a handful of major rail companies reported more than $10 billion in buybacks and dividends over the first six months of 2022. Meanwhile, workers who try to visit a doctor amid a global pandemic continue to be disciplined, leading to higher staff turnover and soaring injury rates.

"Our research shows just how far railroad executives will go to funnel record profits to their shareholders—even if that means stagnant wages, inhumane attendance policies, and throwing our supply chain into further turmoil," Mike Mitchell, director of policy and research at Groundwork Collaborative, told Common Dreams.

Groundwork's analysis—based on recent corporate earnings calls from Union Pacific, CSX, Canadian National Railway, and Norfolk Southern—sheds new light on the dynamics underlying rail workers' ongoing fight for more safety and dignity in the workplace.

When it comes to shoveling more money to investors, Groundwork found that Union Pacific is leading the pack in 2022. Rather than using billions of dollars in revenue to improve pay and job conditions, Union Pacific gave $5 billion to shareholders through buybacks and dividends in the first six months of this year alone.

Other giants in the industry aren't far behind. CSX, for instance, funneled nearly $3 billion in buybacks and dividends to investors from January through June, while Canadian National Railway reported $2.3 billion in stock buybacks during the same time period, Groundwork noted.

Although exact figures weren't disclosed, Norfolk Southern's chief financial officer Mark George said on a July call that "shareholder distributions are up and you'll observe here the 19% higher dividend payments through six months on top of continued strong share repurchase activity."

Railroads have been enjoying record profits after decades of deregulation, consolidation, and "just-in-time" practices known as "precision railroad scheduling" transformed the industry into what Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, describes as "another monopolized cash cow for Wall Street."

The safety of workers and communities, meanwhile, has been put in jeopardy by executives who have fired workers and increased hours, critics argue.

As Groundwork's new analysis points out, Union Pacific chief executive officer Lance Fritz told investors on a July call that the company had cut staff by a third since 2018 and said, "We've got to do some other unique and creative things with our labor unions in order to make our crews more available and more productive."

After admitting that Union Pacific's workforce "hasn't seen a raise in 2.5 or three years," Fritz praised the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB)—a panel of three arbitrators appointed by President Joe Biden earlier this summer in a bid to resolve heated contract negotiations between rail carriers and unions—and expressed hope that it would propose a "reasonable approach to wages."

He also said that Union Pacific is prepared to make further staffing cuts during an economic downturn, asserting that conductor-less trains would be "better for the conductors' quality of life."

Like Fritz at Union Pacific, CSX chief executive officer James Foote told investors on a July call that workers at his company "are not happy that they didn't get a raise for 2.5 years" and expressed hope that the PEB "puts out a recommendation that's a win-win for both sides."

CSX acknowledged that its injury rate in the second quarter "increased modestly from the near-record levels in the first quarter," only for Foote to blame the company's staffing challenges on what he described as pandemic-induced changes to "employees' work and lifestyle preferences."

"It's been somewhat of a surprise to all of us, the number of people that have dropped out after, again, going through all of the classroom training, all of the on-the-job training, and then working a few months and deciding that they don't like railroading as a profession," said Foote, just moments after stagnant wages and unsafe conditions were discussed.

Mark George, the CFO of Norfolk Southern, meanwhile, also attributed high attrition rates to a so-called "lifestyle challenge" occurring "in a very unique [labor] market where everybody is looking for talent."

He did go on to acknowledge, however, that "despite the very rich and attractive pay structure that the railroads offer, sometimes, [people would] rather work in a more predictable schedule in warehousing or in home construction, where they can be nearby where they live and not stay in hotels and also just not be on call."

Norfolk Southern's chief operating officer Cindy Sanborn said that the company is looking into "sign-on and attendance bonuses, retirement deferral, and referral incentive[s]" to boost hiring and retention, but she didn't say anything about workers' fundamental demands for sick days, paid leave, and other basic benefits revolving around better "quality of life."

Last week, labor lawyer Jenny Hunter and Terri Gerstein, director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at Harvard Law School's Labor and Worklife Program, argued in Slate that railroad companies nearly inflicted an economic catastrophe on the U.S. because they chose profit-maximization over humane workplace policies.

As the pair wrote:

It should not be controversial to say it, but: People should have sick leave so they do not have to come to work when they get sick. They should be able to take leave to attend doctors' appointments or deal with family emergencies without risking their jobs. Workers should also have regular time off, not be on call almost every day of their lives. This strike or lockout was threatened because of the railroad companies' refusal, right up until the last minute, to accept these basic human needs, and their willingness to bring an already weary country to the brink of yet another economic disaster, all in the name of ever more profits.

The United States, unlike many countries, does not have a national law guaranteeing sick leave; if we did, the railroads' attendance systems would be clearly illegal. The kind of point-based attendance systems that railroads employ can still be considered unlawful retaliation if workers lose points for taking leave that is legally protected, such as for absences guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, or state or local sick leave laws. Apart from questions of legality, it is grossly irresponsible to punish people for unexpected illnesses ever, and especially during a pandemic.

A nationwide strike or lockout was at least temporarily averted last Thursday when the Biden White House announced a tentative agreement between rail carriers and unions that would enable workers to take days off for medical care without being punished, though just one of those days would be paid.

As a pair of unions representing tens of thousands of rail workers has stressed, however, the proposed deal still must be approved by rank-and-file members in an upcoming ratification vote.

Had it not been for Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) intervention last week, Senate Republicans may have succeeded in forcing rail workers to accept the PEB's original proposal, which many workers found intolerable because it excluded the sick leave benefits they sought, among other shortcomings.

Mitchell, for his part, said Monday that "it's time for these railroad companies to start prioritizing the safety and well-being of their workers—or we'll all pay the price."


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