There appears to be a real union movement around the nation with teachers unions, nursing unions, and now the railroad unions exercising their labor muscles with picket lines forming from coast to coast. So far, the railroad is still chug-chug-chugging along, but for how much longer?
The White House is scrambling to avoid a railroad strike that would further complicate the supply chain woes we already face with the clock tick-tick-ticking to this Friday when a strike could begin.
So, what action should the White House and Congress take should a rail strike occur?
Before diving into the political implications of a rail strike, we should first look at what the rail unions are asking for and what a strike would mean for everyday Americans like you and me.
When most of us think about union strikes, one of the first things that come to mind is increased wages. While a component of many strikes, the rail unions are primarily concerned with their work tempo and time off rules.
Rail employees are generally required to be on-call and available to work seven days a week due to staff cuts over the last few years. However, according to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the SMART Transportation Division, rail workers are made to stay on for several days working 12-hour shifts with little notice and are even penalized if they call in sick.
Dennis Pierce, the President of the Locomotive Engineers Union, put it plainly:
“It’s no longer about money – it’s about unpaid time off to go to the doctor without getting fired.”
It seems reasonable, like a valid enough request. But just like any conflict, there are two sides to this story.
BNSF, one of the rail companies owned by Warren Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway, says that the claims made by the rail unions that they don’t receive enough time off are just plain false. In their words:
“Rail employees are provided with significant time off. Generally, train crew employees have over three to four weeks of paid vacation and over ten personal leave days.”
That seems like some pretty sweet PTO compared to a lot of jobs. However, when you compare the expected work tempo of a rail worker, the counter-argument by BNSF seems a bit weak.
As Mr. Pierce responds:
“You have to understand these workers are not on scheduled days. They have no scheduled days off, they work whenever they get called.”
That would complicate scheduling your vacation or getting to medical appointments when needed. Sounds similar to military rules if you ask me.
While it’s easy to sympathize with the rail workers, the fact remains that a strike would have devastating consequences for the American consumer and industry. For example, it is estimated that a rail shutdown would cost the U.S. economy $2 billion a day, at a time when the supply chain is still stressed.
Often disregarded, the fact remains that trains are still a vital part of the supply chain in this country. Almost 30% of the cargo transported in America is done by rail, and the rail unions maintain 97% of the Amtrak tracks.
What this means is passenger travel could be affected as well. President Biden’s beloved Amtrak has already begun canceling trains on four long-distance routes with warnings that more service cuts could come in the future if the rail unions strike this Friday.
As if the car industry didn’t have enough issues during the pandemic, a rail shutdown would complicate issues even further. According to Toyota, they would need to store vehicles, and “many locations would run out of storage within two to four days of production” if the rail shuts down.
The National Grain and Feed Association said a rail stoppage right as the fall harvest gears up would have disastrous results:
“…many facilities will begin to fill to capacity and may be limited on deliveries they can take from producers.”
They go on to state the obvious:
“The economic damages across the food and agricultural supply chain would be swift and severe.”
Just what the everyday American needs, more supply chain issues affecting grocery shelves.
The White House and Congress find themselves at quite the problematic impasse. A rail strike would prove disastrous for the party going into the midterms, with Americans already frustrated by inflation and supply chain issues.
This week the White House started working with truckers and air shippers to “see how they can step in and keep goods moving in case of a rail shutdown.” That’s all well and good, except the truckers have their own problems.
According to the American Trucking Association, it would take more than 460,000 additional trucks to carry the goods typically transported via train. Given that there is already a shortage of 80,000 truckers, this hardly seems like a viable option.
Labor Secretary Martin Walsh said rather poignantly:
“A strike doesn’t help anybody. A strike doesn’t help the workers. A strike doesn’t help the general public. A strike certainly doesn’t help the supply chain.”
Perhaps he should’ve added a strike doesn’t help the President or Democrats at large.
Congress could step in to avoid a strike, but that gets sticky given that Democrats have long been the supporters of the unions.
“This is a chance for the Democrats to stand up for something they say they support, the working class and labor.”
For the Democrats’ sake, let’s hope the unions and the big railroad can agree. Otherwise, this winter could shape up to be a rough one indeed for consumers.
President of the Fertilizer Institute Corey Rosenbach said a potential rail stoppage would:
“…be bad news for farmers and food security.”
Just today, I saw a sign at my local grocery store stating to expect food stocks to go down with possible future supply chain issues and limiting the sale of poultry to two packs per family.
This country is looking less and less like the one we used to know and more and more like the ones we used to learn about in school.
Now is the time to support and share the sources you trust.
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