In the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, millions of workers have been thrust into the collective fight against it. Healthcare workers, first responders, truck drivers, grocery employees, manufacturers and many more are crucial to keep the country safe, healthy and supplied.
Public transportation remains vital for these people, as is the movement of goods needed to perform their jobs. Thousands of TCU-IAM members stand on the front lines working in mass transit, and ensure key employees can get back and forth to work safely. Thousands more are making sure essential supplies are moved and distributed. Many have been working nearly 80 hours a week. Here
are a few of their stories.
THE BIG APPLE
New York City has been an epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Members of TCU-IAM Local 90 are working around the clock at Long Island Rail Road to keep passengers and other workers safe.
Warehouse employees and truck drivers keep the railroad and stations supplied with necessary chemicals and personal protective equipment (PPE). Keeping the mode of transportation clean is as important as keeping it moving. Emergency personnel using it need to be assured they aren’t carrying the virus to their work or back to their homes.
Station cleaners, including 18-year member and Local 90 President Charles Quinn, clean all 124 stations on the railroad twice a day, focusing on touch points.
“We have cleaners out there working 24/7, trying to keep this place as clean and safe as we can get it,” said Quinn. “The majority of our customers are emergency services. FDNY, NYPD and many of the workers at our local hospitals in Long Island use our mass transit system to get back and forth to work, so it would really hurt the public for us to shut down on them.”
Quinn, a third-generation LIRR worker, went on to describe the atmosphere in the city:
“Right now, in Long Island, in all of New York, it’s an eerie feeling,” said Quinn. “You’re used to going to Penn Station at 4 in the afternoon and you can’t move, and now you have all the room in the world. The roads are quiet, the stores are quiet. It’s like nothing we have ever seen before.”
Quinn couldn’t be more proud of his members and how they are dealing with the situation.
“I’d like to thank our members for coming out, signing up for shifts and taking on this responsibility to do this work knowing they are putting themselves in harm’s way and possibly bringing something home
to their family,” said Quinn.
Although he and his coworkers are risking exposure to the dangers of this deadly virus for the greater good of the public, Quinn humbly downplays special acknowledgment.
“I don’t consider ourselves heroes,” said Quinn. “I consider us doing the job we get paid to do. We are just normal people out there. The men and women at this lodge and working for this railroad—we’re going to keep working
like this for a while. As long as they need us to get it done, we’ll get it done.”
Station Cleaner Keith Gilbert is a fourth-generation LIRR employee and the Local Chairman for TCU-IAM Local 90. Since childhood, he had always wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and work at the railroad. Now, he works alongside his union family.
“All the men and women of Local 90 are working tirelessly to combat this pandemic,” said Gilbert. “They are sacrificing their time with family and loved ones to make sure the LIRR stays operational during this crisis. We will get through this together and continue to provide safe travel to all essential employees traveling to and from Manhattan.”
TCU National President-Elect Artie Maratea, a native New Yorker and former LIRR employee, knows first-hand the dedication and strength of membership across the country.
“It is no surprise to me that our members are working hard and courageously in the midst of this crisis, or that our members are going above and beyond to help their brothers and sisters and their communities,” said Maratea. “TCU gets it done. Our members have my deepest respect.”
THE WINDY CITY
Local 829 member Chuck Soukup is a traveling janitor on Chicago’s Metra Railroad where he has worked for 19 years. Metra has 11 lines, 242 stations and an annual ridership of more than 75 million people. Along with three other members, they cover 44 locations.
“We’re working 76 hours a week, wiping down everything with a focus on the high-touch areas, trying to limit the spread of this virus,” said Soukup. “We’re doing all our regular janitorial work as well, but putting an added focus on handrails, door handles and stuff people will touch the most.”
Even before the pandemic, railroad janitors like Soukup received special training because they must be railroad worker-qualified under the Federal Railroad Administration. Their training isn’t only focused on railroad safety, but on bloodborne pathogens and how to deal with dangerous bodily fluids. COVID-19 has introduced an extremely dangerous and invisible enemy.
“We have always been trained on PPE and stuff, but this is very unique because it’s invisible,” said Soukup. “You can’t see this thing. You don’t know if it’s in the air, you don’t know if it’s on a surface, so we are constantly wiping down everything making sure these areas are clean.”
Soukup remembers what times were like following the September 11 terrorist attacks, and says there is a similar feeling now in regard to wanting to support the workers making a difference.
“My dad was a veteran Metra police officer, and at that time police and firefighters were the heroes,” said Soukup. “With this thing, it’s different types of people. It’s grocery store workers, healthcare workers and sanitation workers. They are the ones on the forefront of this pandemic and the ones upon whom we depend.”
Soukup’s wife works in healthcare, and since the onset of the pandemic they rarely see each other due to the amount of hours they’re working in their respective fields. Even during these extremely tiring and stressful times, he says he is still very thankful for what he has.
“I love my job, I love Metra and I love being a TCU union member,” said Soukup.
Soukup hopes to see unions and their members get the same level of recognition and respect when things get back to normal.
“Unions have gotten beat up for years, and only account for a small percentage of the workforce,” said Soukup. “If this country is dependent on such a small percentage of the workforce, they should recognize the value unions bring, and how they set the bar for everyone else.”
GRIND CITY GRIT
Freight rail and intermodal workers continue to grind hard every day to ensure goods and supplies get to those who need them.
The more than 1,200 members of Chicago-based TCU-IAM Local 6011 are dealing with a variety of issues since the pandemic hit. The carmen and women inspect, maintain and repair intermodal freight cars and auto rack rail cars for TTX Company at railyards around the country from coast to coast.
The local officers have been working diligently to keep members safe. Workers previously used a fingerprint to clock in for their shift; the leadership was able to stop that method to keep from possibly spreading germs.
“The biggest concern for our members is catching the virus,” Local Chairman Izaak Campos shared during a Local 6011 officer’s meeting. “They want to know what the company is doing to prevent it, and what is going to happen if they get it.”
This is a valid concern, as two members of the local have contracted COVID-19. Both were quarantined and are recovering.
Despite the dangers of COVID-19, freight rail workers, like the carmen of TCU-IAM 6011, continue to work behind the scenes to keep America supplied. The officers of Local 6011 hope that message sinks in with the rest of the country once all this is over.
“Our members keep this country moving. We are proud and we hope they get the recognition they deserve for the work they’re doing during these crazy times.”
The U.S. has seen difficult times before, and TCU-IAM National President Bob Scardelletti recognizes the nation is depending on the hard-working men and women of the railroad.
“TCU members are keeping this country moving right now. Commuters, passenger rail and freight railroad workers are all working diligently to keep this country safe and supplied,” said Scardelletti. “I am so proud of the work that every TCU member is doing everywhere throughout this crisis.”
TCU-IAM Local 794 President Devin Riddle runs an overhead crane for BNSF at its Memphis, Tenn., Intermodal yard. He loads and unloads large shipping containers from the trains and trucks. The husband and father of three’s biggest concern is his family.
“My worst fear is I bring something home and they get sick because of me,” said Riddle. “I feel like it’s out of my control. We are dealing with a virus we can’t see; it’s like chasing ghosts.”
Riddle has noticed many of his local members stepping up to help each other get through the pandemic. Many have brought in hard-to-find items for people and others are volunteering their time to help out.
“We have members come in on their personal time to sanitize transport vehicles, crane cabs and truck cabs for others,” said Riddle. “I think they all realize if we come together as a unit, we can get a lot done, and we will get through these difficult times.”
Riddle is integral in keeping the much-needed supply chain moving, but expresses he is just doing his job. His wife works in health care and he recognizes the tremendous stress that those in her line of work are under.
“Local 794 wants to thank all the healthcare workers for all they do,” said Riddle. “We appreciate they sacrifice they are making for all of us. They are truly heroes.”