NEW YORK, N.Y.—Scores of Amtrak workers rallied on the steps of the future Moynihan Station Oct. 9 to protest the railroad management’s plans to outsource onboard food service and eliminate 1,700 jobs.
The proposal would end dining-car service with hot meals cooked onboard and replace it with prepackaged airline-style food, John Feltz, head of the Transport Workers Union’s rail division, told LaborPress. He charges that Richard Anderson, the former Delta Airlines CEO who was appointed to head Amtrak last year, is “seeking to dismantle our national railroad system.”
The TWU learned of the plans in late August, Feltz told the crowd, when it obtained Amtrak’s request for information from potential food-contract bidders. He said it asked them to “give us ideas how this can work without Amtrak employees.”
“People who have been loyal employees for decades are being given the choice of relocating thousands of miles from their homes, taking lower-paying jobs, or leaving Amtrak,” said Amy Griffin, president of TWU Local 1460, which represents some of the 1,700 food-service workers.
“These are careers,” Griffin, who has worked for Amtrak for 31 years, told LaborPress after the rally. The job enabled her, with a high-school education, to afford to buy a house, and “really helped me grow” as a person, she added. But management, she said, wants to replace the union’s members with “cheaper labor and a different company.”
Amtrak has already eliminated dining-car service on two long-distance routes: the Lake Shore Limited, between Chicago, New York, and Boston; and the Capitol Limited, from Washington to Chicago.
“We are undertaking changes with the dining service to provide higher-quality food with a contemporary style of service,” Amtrak said in a statement. “As a result of this change in dining, we have eliminated a total of 14 chef positions—including seven positions based in Washington, D.C., and seven in New York. At this time, all who have sought a new position at Amtrak has landed one. We will continue to evaluate impacts to determine staffing levels.”
People who have been loyal employees for decades are being given the choice of relocating thousands of miles from their homes, taking lower-paying jobs, or leaving Amtrak. — Amy Griffin, president of TWU Local 1460
Asked about the 1,700 potential layoffs, an Amtrak spokesperson responded with a link to a July announcement about the addition of “a hot entrée in addition to chilled meals” on the two routes. “These meals are served in a balsa wood container and are delivered to the trains just prior to origination, eliminating most on-board preparation,” it said.
Leaders in the Amtrak Service Works Council, the coalition of unions representing the railroad’s service workers, say management is also outsourcing other jobs. It’s trying to replace 60% of the carmen, TWU members who inspect and repair the trains’ cars, with workers from an outside contractor, said Feltz. It’s in the process of privatizing a call center in Florida and replacing the 100 workers, said Jack Dinsdale, vice president of the International Association of Machinists’ Transportation Communications Union.
“If it happens to them, what’s going to happen to us?” asked Dean Devita, secretary-treasurer of the National Conference of Firemen & Oilers, a 32BJ SEIU affiliate.
Dinsdale dismisses the argument that Amtrak has to cut costs because it is not making a profit. “Every transportation system is subsidized,” he said. Airports receive extensive public subsidies, he noted, and people driving on highways pay neither the direct costs of building and maintaining the roads nor the social costs of pollution from gas, oil, and exhaust.
“A lot of people forget that we’re the front-line people on the train,” Griffin told LaborPress. Food-service workers are also trained in first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and evacuation procedures, said Dinsdale. “Our people are the ones who help in derailments,” said Feltz.
“Fifteen-dollar jobs with no benefits—we are not going to negotiate that,” said Donald Boyd of UNITE HERE Local 43, which also represents food-service workers. He vowed that the union would not let Amtrak be turned into the “Jimmy John Express.”
“It’s not a fast-food restaurant. It’s our national railroad system,” said TWU International President John Samuelsen. He called the privatization plans “part of an ugly national trend—disinvestment in public services,” noting that “it’s not like Anderson is lowering prices to ride Amtrak.”
The unions are also planning rallies in Chicago and Boston. “If he wants a fight,” Samuelsen said of Anderson, “he’s going to get it.”