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U.S. Rail Workers Could Strike And Shut Down The Economy

115,000 railroad workers are gearing up to strike as soon as September

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Video produced and edited by Paula Pecorella and Meg Herschlein

Hugely profitable railroad companies are putting the entire American economy in jeopardy. The railroads are refusing to negotiate a fair contract with workers who are on call 24/7 and haven’t gotten a raise in 3 years. 115,000 railroad workers could be forced to strike in September. We spoke to the AFL-CIO President of the Transportation Trades Department Greg Ryan and locomotive engineers about their fight to secure a fair contract. Below is a full transcript of the video.

Michael Paul Lindsey: The impact of a railroad strike across the industry, it would be like asking what would be the results if a nuclear bomb went off in New York? Obviously it would be utter chaos and catastrophe.

The supply chain backup might get a lot worse as 115,000 railroad workers gear up for a nationwide strike over crushing conditions

Michael: It seems intentional, like the railroad industry is intentionally trying to create an oppressive work environment so that they can reach their end goal and be able to get more money back to Wall Street.

Railroad workers have been working without a contract for over 3 years

Greg Reagan: These workers have worked now for the last three years throughout a pandemic, putting themselves and their families at risk without a raise. They have not received any pay increase during that time. At the same time they’ve seen their numbers dwindle dramatically, and they’ve also seen the highest profits in the history of railroading over that same stretch of time.

Michael: They want more with less and that comes down to people, resources, locomotives, maintenance, everything.

President Biden has appointed an emergency board to mediate the contract dispute. Without a deal, workers could launch a national strike by September

Greg: Railroads have laid off 45,000 people in the past five years. And that, um, that means that they are completely incapable of meeting the demand that is placed on our economy. 

Michael: Just on-duty time, you are very commonly working 80+ a week. That does not include the time that you’re sitting at the away-from-home terminal. I mean, you might be away from home subject to the railroad not with your family for 120 hours in a week.

The railroad industry is trying to cut even more corners by cutting crew sizes from 2 workers to 1

Michael: On these long runs like we have where you’re on the train consistently, 10, 11, 12 hours, it is not realistic for a human being to be by themselves. There’s no gas station to stop at to get a cup of coffee when you’re nodding off, when you’re getting tired, you can’t get up and stretch your legs. Let’s say the boards are exhausted the way they are, and you think you’re going to work at 6 in the morning, well, nope there’s a shortage of people, you end up getting called to work in 1 in the morning. When you’re tired, you haven’t gotten any sleep, you tossed and turned, and then they expect you to be on the train for 12 hours by yourself.

On top of a grueling schedule, the once-competitive pay of railroaders has not kept up with inflation

Michael: We used to be paid an above average salary because we work an above average lifestyle, where we are gone holidays, weekends. But the way inflation is devaluing our purchasing power, that’s not really the case anymore. You might only be making like $26 an hour, gross, when you consider the time that you were on the train, the time after your hours of service expired that you’re sitting there on the siding, the time sitting in the hotel up to 16 hours without pay and the fact that you’re having to pay for those meals out of pocket. The sacrifice that we make is not being compensated.

In this round of contract negotiations, I believe railroad workers as a whole want four things: They want an increase in their pay, back up to the standard of living they once had before inflation destroyed it, they wanna keep their health insurance, they want the ability to take time off when they’re sick, when they need time with their family without being subject to an aggressive attendance policy, and we don’t wanna be forced to one man crews the way the railroad wants to cram it down our throat.

Biden’s emergency board has 30 days to recommend terms for a new contract. Workers say it’s an opportunity for Biden to prove that he’s a pro-labor president

Greg: They will hear the arguments from both the railroads and the unions about what their asks are and what they think is important. They will evaluate the underlying economic circumstances, the state of the industry, and they’ll come up with what they believe is a is a reasonable resolution to this contract dispute. And they will have their recommendation. At that point, there will be another 30 day cooling off period where the parties hopefully will be able to negotiate off of what the recommendation is. 

When the cooling off period extends, then the parties will be released, so they would be free to engage in a work action. That would mean, you know, potentially a lockout or a strike.

Michael: I definitely believe that railroad workers this time around are ready to strike.

Greg: I think people are waking up to how important the supply chain is to their daily lives. I mean, that became very clear when we had these big slowdowns and we had empty storefronts and that was based on under, you know, under performance, but no performance would have, you know, certainly bigger impacts across the board.

Michael: Imagine how bad the backlog would be if the railroad shut down for a week’s time—just a week. It would be enough that store shelves would be empty.

There hasn’t been a U.S. railroad strike since 1992. Railroaders say they’re just trying to save the industry they love.

Michael: These people do not even care whether there’s a railroad industry in ten years. I care. I have wanted to be an engineer my entire life. I mean, even as a kindergartener I remember I wanted to be an engineer. I want there to be a freight railroad 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, 100 years from now and it seems like essentially these Wall Street cronies are intentionally destroying the industry to absorb as much profit as they can out of it until they’ve picked it dry and all the blood’s gone and then they can just let it fall.

Greg: If we want to actually start fixing the supply chain, if you want to have real solutions to how do we fix our supply chain and make sure that we’re more competitive and that we are meeting the needs of our economic system, we need to give these workers the contract they deserve, because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to rebuild this system and make it more effective and make it more efficient, and more productive for our country.

Videography by Michael Emmer

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