BY KAY SEDAM
HIALEAH, Florida - CSX, one of the nation's largest freight carriers, says it will hire about 500 new conductors yearly until the year 2002. In an attempt to save costs in doing this, the company has recently privatized the training of potential new hires. This breaks with the industry standard of hiring "off the street" and providing full on- the-job training.
CSX has begun this process by contracting universities to offer courses in Freight Railroad Conductor Training. The idea is to provide the railroad with a qualified pool of potential employees ready for entry level jobs. Students are charged $3,750 for tuition, testing, and application fees, in addition to travel costs and room and board for the eight- week course.
This move comes on the heels of CSX's $10.2 billion deal with Norfolk Southern (NS) railroad to buy and divide between them the routes of Conrail. These two giants will now dominate freight rail in the eastern half of the United States. The privatization of employee training, along with crew cuts, unsafe working conditions, and skimping on equipment maintenance, is part of the rail bosses' drive to boost their profits by lowering the wages and working conditions in the industry.
Joel Warner, assistant vice president of human resources for CSX, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution, "People thought of the railroads as a dead or dying industry. The railroads are growing, and we're making a lot of money, and we're happy about that."
Several universities, including University of Florida- Jackson, have receive funding from CSX to run the schools, which will not only train workers, but also conduct background checks on those who apply. CSX official Warner explained that the course is also designed to weed out those people who are unable to endure working conditions on the railroad. "This job is not for everyone," he said.
The Journal Constitution went on to explain, "Railroads run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in all weather conditions. People entering the work force are expected to work strange hours, be away from home over long periods and are likely to be called to work at any time."
Completion of the course does not guarantee a job with CSX. The worker will "be a leg up on other applicants for the $35,000 to $50,000 a year job," as Warner put it. All that graduates are guaranteed is an interview. Of the 33 applicants so far, 29 have been offered jobs.
The materials from the Florida Railroad Institute highlight the good pay and benefits received by those who work in rail. But as Jason Holloway, a 20-year-old graduate of CSX's first Railroad Institute class explains, "What they don't tell you is that for this good paying job, in addition to carrying out the duties of trainman, they expect you to be a mechanic and a clerk, as well as be computer literate!"
The skills learned at any of CSX's railroad schools are no different than those learned by any railworker in the traditionally company-sponsored trainmen or conductor schools - switching tracks, locking down a brake, hauling 85- pound couplers, and hanging onto a rolling car. But the bosses hope railworkers' financial stake in staying on the job and recouping their "investment" will help to guarantee they remain loyal employees. In the past, several new hires, after being trained, have left to take advantage of hiring "bonuses" of up to $40,000 being offered by other rail companies facing labor shortages similar to those at CSX.
Since the first class started, stories of the hardship imposed by CSX's training are becoming widely known in the Hialeah yard. Most students had to take out loans with Sea Board Credit Union - CSX's credit union - in order to afford the $3,750 tuition. Monthly payments are taken out of your pay check if you are hired.
Given the nature of the training, workers are unable to hold on to their former jobs during the course, resulting in further indebtedness. The program's organizers recommend as a typical housing option that trainees double up in a $179- per-week hotel room. If for any reason you resign after the end of the second week of class, no refund is given.
While told they will get jobs in particular cities upon being hired by CSX, trainees were still forced to sign an agreement to relocate wherever CSX demanded. As a result, many were forced to other cities upon being hired by the railroad.
Newly hired trainmen also face the possibility of being reassigned out of the seniority district they originally hired into once they become conductors, if there is a reduction of the work force.
One of the new hires here said that the union is planning to file a grievance against the company's practice of forcing people to pay to get hired. Union officials indicated that they will demand that the trainees' money be fully reimbursed.
Kay Sedam is an engineer for CSX at the Hialeah yard and
a member of United Transportation Union Local 1138.
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