Dispute over camp cars could hamper Amtrak contract negotiations Conditions dampen track workers' lives


Passengers on the speeding Amtrak trains take no notice of the white prefab structures sitting on rail cars on a siding in Odenton. But these field residences for railroad construction workers are part of a labor dispute that may bring those trains and their passengers to a screeching halt next month.

About 40 modern-day John Henrys and Polly Anns, the men and women who build and maintain tracks, call these mobile barracks home when they are working on the railroad. Nobody likes them. Not the railroad, not the union -- and certainly not the workers who live in them, 10 per car, three or four days a week.

"Can you think of nine other people you want to live in a boxcar with?" asks Jed Dodd, general chairman of the Pennsylvania Federation of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes.

Still, nobody can agree on how to replace the camp cars.

The union representing the workers who live in the camps considers them a lesser evil -- a terrible place to live, but preferable to Amtrak's proposed alternative. The nation's passenger railroad wants to pay the workers a living allowance of $29 a day to cover food and housing -- an arrangement used by other U.S. railroads.

Wages and work rules -- rather than camp car conditions -- are the central issues in the contract talks. But the union says many of Amtrak's demands for changing work rules are unacceptable because they would make the harsh lives of camp car workers even worse.

Amtrak's proposal for a $29 per diem allowance would force the workers into even worse conditions, Mr. Dodd argues. "We don't like the camp cars, but we'd prefer not to have the guys sleeping in their cars."

The construction workers toil when train traffic is lightest, often on weekend nights. Working four 10-hour shifts, they typically arrive at the camp by train on Friday and take a train home Tuesday morning.

While at work, their home is a trailer-like structure with tiny square windows. Each camp car can accommodate 10 workers in five sets of bunk beds, three at one end and two at the other. The middle of the car is devoted to bathroom facilities: two toilets, two showers and three sinks.

The cars at the Odenton camp are neat and well-maintained. They are even air-conditioned. Although the jobs at the camp involve hard outdoor building and repairing track in all kinds of weather, the hardships are not so much physical as they are psychological and emotional. There's boredom and the pressures of living in such close quarters. But for most people, the most difficult part seems to be the separation from family and friends.

Ed Tibbs, an equipment operator from Baltimore, has worked for Amtrak for more than 14 years, and most of that time has been spent in such work camps. He is largely resigned to the conditions.

"This is the card I've been dealt. This is the card I'm going to play," he said. But he added wistfully, "I did not think I'd be here this long when I was hired."

That doesn't mean he likes it. He is married and has a 21-year-old daughter. "You have to be a part-time parent, a part-time husband," he said.

To Mr. Tibbs' mind, telephone calls don't help dispel the isolation of the camp. It may even make things worse.

"I do not call home," he said. Mr. Tibbs said if he called and learned of a problem, it would just add to the frustration because there would be little he could do to help.

Getting a call from home would be even worse, because it usually signals some kind of serious problem. "If someone calls to me to say I've got a call from home, I'd be fearful," he said.

Because of his seniority, Mr. Tibbs works out of a camp largely by his own choice.

Since only about one-fifth of Amtrak's maintenance-of-way workers actually are assigned to the camps, a worker with sufficient seniority can generally get assigned to a job close to home. Amtrak maintains that the majority of the people in the camps are there by choice because 80 percent of them have sufficient seniority to bid for other kinds of jobs.

There are economic incentives to work in the camps. The basic pay for a track repair worker is $10.86. Camp car workers get a premium of 55 cents an hour when they work at night.

For Mr. Tibbs the extra pay is worth it, especially because he is assigned to the repair and maintenance of the cars.

That's far less onerous -- and dangerous -- than the work done by the track crews.

"You don't want to step out in front of a 120-mph train," said Mike Daigle, a 38-year-old from Wilmington, Del. "The rails weigh tons HTC and tons. They swing them in the air. You have to watch yourself."

A recent hire, Mr. Daigle says he doesn't mind camp life. "I like it, but I miss my girl. I'm single. If I were married it would be a different story."

Many of the people in the Odenton camp are new hires like Mr. Daigle. Many of them are less enthusiastic than Mr. Daigle about camp life. But without much seniority, they say they have little choice in the matter. They say that for them it's the camp or no job.

The contract dispute between Amtrak and the construction workers is being studied by a presidential emergency board charged with making recommendations for a settlement late this month. If the two sides fail to accept the recommendations, the union would be free to strike June 24.

Mr. Dodd, of the union, wants to get rid of the camp cars. His union supports treating the workers the same way Amtrak treats management employees when they travel, by reimbursing them for their expenses.

"We are the only craft that lives in camp cars," he said. Other Amtrak employees who must travel as part of their jobs "live in motels and eat in restaurants," he said, adding that his workers should be treated the same way.

Amtrak officials agree with Mr. Dodd on one point: They want to get rid of the camp cars, too. But they disagree with Mr. Dodd on just about everything else. They even insist that the camp cars are not even an issue in the negotiations.

Amtrak spokesman R. Clifford Black said that the railroad did propose doing away with the camp cars but that the union refused to discuss the issue. Mr. Black said that Amtrak has also proposed the $29 per diem allowance but that the union won't talk about that either, even though most of the major freight railroads already have similar per diem agreements with the union.

Another point of contention is over work-site reporting. Camp car employees now go on the clock at the camps when they report for their shift. Amtrak wants the clock to start when the men report for work at the actual job site. The railroad argues this is not really a camp car issue.

But the union says this issue would have a pronounced effect on camp car workers. For example, the people based at the camp in Odenton last week were bused each night to a work site about an hour away. That bus ride now is included as part of their shift.

Under the Amtrak proposal, that ride would be on their own time.

Mr. Black accuses the union of debating issues in the press that it has never discussed at the bargaining table.

"The camp car issue has not been raised at all," he said. "We wanted to bring it up. They didn't want to talk about it."

But Mr. Dodd insists that the camp cars are very much a part of the negotiations.

While the work-rule changes being discussed would apply to everyone, Mr. Dodd argues that they would fall particularly hard on the camp car workers.

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