- Kelly Pettus
Come Together Right Now
When I think about how much has happened since January, it makes my head spin. I’ll never forget my husband coming home and trying to explain “Hi-Viz” to me, because he didn’t have many details. He just knew there was an attendance points policy being introduced in February that would make it nearly impossible to take time off, even for emergencies. That concerned me because he was already struggling to get approved time off to use vacation and personal leave days (PLD) that he earned because the allocation for time off was minimal. When the railroad finally issued the details of the new policy, it felt devastating because I knew it was going to prevent us from being able to manage our lives.
My first instinct was to speak out! I knew there had to be other spouses and workers who felt the same way I did, because this policy was crossing a line. I am the feisty one in my house, while my husband is milder mannered. He was disgusted by the policy, but after 29 years of railroading (3rd generation), he had no hope for change. He just accepted that the company was going to enforce the policy and he had to live with it, so he braced himself for the worst. He also understood that isn’t my style and I was about to start a raging inferno. It’s true, opposites attract! He supported my participation in the fight with a huge dose of skepticism.
I was a new member of the BLET Auxiliary, and I joined because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of railroad crews and their families. I have been a railroad spouse nearly 14 years. I already understood the hell of unassigned service, roundtrip deadheads, and rotting in motels for 36 hours. We survived a life of passing in the halls while I managed my 70-hour week job, all household responsibilities, and him coming and going without predictability. Sometimes we didn’t see each other for days. I just made sure he had clean clothes and food to put in his cooler. It’s not a life I could explain to someone who hasn’t lived it because I don’t have room in my head for simple solutions like, “He can help you, just give him a chore chart.” I couldn’t bring myself to share with anyone who didn’t have some railroad life experience because it was exhausting. I didn’t know when I joined, but my decision to be a part of the Auxiliary empowered me to get in the ring and fight in solidarity with families and crews who felt as strongly as me. It connected me with people who I didn’t have to explain anything to. They already knew the struggle. What I found is a sisterhood and family who says, “we are here to support you.”
After Hi-Viz was announced, we went full speed ahead, defending our railroad spouses and demanding change. We made so much noise that we were silenced by a TRO in Federal Court. We found ourselves connected to one another, building new friendships based on our mutual desire. We wanted safer working conditions for our spouses, and a better quality of life for our families. We stood together to say NO to inhumane attendance policies! I don’t know that I have ever felt as supported as I have this past year because of my new alliances.
My husband works for BNSF, so I am always going to be more in tuned, and more offended by their negligence and greed because it directly impacts my household. I am also motivated to stand up for all crews, regardless of the railroad that employs them. The relationships I’ve developed through the Auxiliary are close, and do not discriminate based on the railroad of the worker or spouse. Hi-Viz is a BNSF policy, but they are one of the last railroads to implement an inhumane attendance policy, holding workers hostage. My cousin is a conductor for Union Pacific, and he was already suffering under their restrictive attendance policy. I understand that all Class 1’s are equally guilty of abusing their crews. I have become acquainted with crews across the country since this fight began, and we are on the same team as far as I am concerned.
I traveled to Omaha to protest at the Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders meeting. I met up with other BNSF spouses from various states. There were Union Pacific employees there. BLET and SMART were equally represented by employees from different railroads. The company who employed them, and different union membership was irrelevant. Members of both auxiliaries were out in the rain, protesting together! We were
all family that day. Our signs sent the same message, and our voices yelled the same words, “support the workers that built your profits.” We were united, and the energy on that cold, rainy day in Omaha fueled the fire in my soul.
I came home, motivated to keep going. I talked to anyone who would listen, from the media to my friends and neighbors. My social media is flooded with information about our fight! I went on a public awareness campaign to make sure everyone I know was in the know. I wrote every lawmaker in my state. I wrote lawmakers in other states. I wrote and called Joe Biden. I emailed the Surface Transportation Board, and that lead to a phone conversation. After my call, I submitted my letter for public comment at the Surface Transportation Board. It wasn’t just me. I know that because during my call with the STB, I was informed they received an abundance of communication, mostly from BNSF families and crews. My message started with protesting Hi-Viz, but it transformed into an all-out public safety alert because railroads are working hard to operate trains with only one person in the cab, and it isn’t only BNSF. My husband runs a BNSF train on Union Pacific territory. He is in the Union Pacific yard at least twice per week. They don’t have it any better, and in some cases they have it worse.
Then, it happened. I had a person, also a railroad worker from a different company than BNSF, get testy with me. He complained that he has been living with an attendance policy already, so why didn’t we fight when his railroad implemented it? I’ve read negative rhetoric in our social media groups about what the people fighting the hardest should be doing. I had a few people tell me that my letters to the company and lawmakers was a waste of time. I had a long-time friend tell me that we weren’t going to get anything done. I know a couple of people who bashed our unions, claiming they weren’t doing anything to fight for a better situation.
Do you know how that made me feel? ANGRY! It made me angry because I didn’t see any of those people protesting in the cold and rain in Omaha. It made me wonder if they have written a letter to anyone instead of deciding it wasn’t worthwhile to try. It made me curious about why a person would choose a career path that is union represented while spewing anti-union rhetoric. We have enough forces working against us. The last thing we need is poison within.
I realize there is a history of disappointment and resentment. I understand that many people simply feel defeated. That feeling of disappointment and defeat could easily lead to someone to decide it isn’t worth the fight. My own husband was there 8 months ago, remember? What I can’t understand is the lack of solidarity and appreciation for the men and women who are willing to put themselves out there to fight for the rest. That is difficult to swallow.
I will never claim that we will reach a perfect existence for everyone, but I have seen progress this year. Our unions have come together to represent all crafts, with one unified message! The Surface Transportation Board is demanding accountability where there was none before. Shippers and short line railroads are sounding the alarm. Martin Oberman came out and said that railroad workers are not being compensated enough. The FRA put out a 2- person crew rule that is open for comment today. I’ve heard a lot of criticism about the rule being full of loopholes, but it didn’t exist at all prior to last month. Can we join forces to make it a federal law next? I have seen lawmakers stand up in our defense, then witnessed our own get angry because they have a different political preference. I have also seen lawmakers come out and blatantly accuse labor of taking advantage of the supply chain crisis, and our own still stand by them because of a political preference.
The bottom line is, we ARE making progress. Change is happening before our eyes. If you think it’s useless to try, nothing will get accomplished. If you have decided another railroad worker or railroad spouse is your enemy because they work for a different company, are part of a different union, or have a different political
belief, you are not helping our cause or your own. Every time we accomplish something, such as a 2-person crew rule, I see it as a victory. I realize a federal law is more ideal. What steps are you taking to make it so? Union politics may turn you off but it’s our union officers sitting in hearings, taking our case to court, and negotiating on our behalf. They may not ask for everything you want, and they may not even get everything they asked for, but they are fighting our cause. For the record, Dennis Pierce was in Omaha, getting soaked in the rain right alongside me. I don’t know him personally, but I do know he is out there fighting for the men and women he represents. I’ve seen it firsthand.
We aren’t all going to agree on everything. We probably won’t all be friends either. I just hope that we can find common ground and stand together on this one thing, our livelihood. As we anxiously await recommendations from the PEB, I encourage everyone to roll up your sleeves during this last 30-day cooling off period. We need to hold hands on this, even if you don’t like the person next to you! Not everyone can attend a protest, but everyone can send a letter or make one phone call. What better way to spend your insomniac hours in a dirty motel than writing someone to tell them about it? There are links on both union websites and the auxiliary website to act. There is a link available to leave a public comment for the 2-person crew rule as well. Doing something, is something. I implore you! Come together, right now!