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Transportation Strikes

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CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – SEPTEMBER 13: Workers service the tracks at the Metra/BNSF railroad yard outside of downtown on September 13, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. Metra, the largest rail service carrying commuters from the suburbs to downtown Chicago, said that it would be forced to suspend service on many of its lines if freight rail workers go on strike. In addition to the Metra disruptions in Chicago, Amtrak announced that it will temporarily cancel three of its long-distance, nationwide routes that run out of Chicago and rely on freight lines, citing a potential strike by the workers. Beginning Tuesday, the Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles, the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco and the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle will be suspended. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

It looks as if the rail unions are going to go on strike anyway, despite Biden’s effort to improve their contract. In the end, when you have only one paid sick leave day, I can see why you would go on strike. I have a piece in The Conversation this morning on what that means and which places it in the larger context of how transportation strikes have and can continue to have an outsized impact on the economy.

Following decades of decline in the late 20th century, U.S labor organizing has surged in recent years.

Most notably, unionization attempts at Starbucks and Amazon have led to surprising successes against some of the biggest corporations in the country. Teachers unions around the nation have also held a series of successful strikes everywhere from Los Angeles to West Virginia.

United Parcel Service workers, who held the nation’s last major transportation strike, in 1997, may head back to the picket lines after their contract expires in June 2023. UPS workers, members of the Teamsters union, are angry over a two-tiered system that pays newer workers lower wages, and they are also demanding greater overtime protections.

But rail workers, angered by their employers’ refusal to offer sick leave and other concerns, may go on strike first.

Rail companies have greatly reduced the number of people they employ on freight trains as part of their efforts to maximize profits and take advantage of technological progress. They generally keep the size of crews limited to only two per train.

Many companies want to pare back their workforce further, saying that it can be safe to have crews consisting of a single crew member on freight trains. The unions reject this arrangement, saying that lacking a second set of eyes would be a recipe for mistakes, accidents and disasters.

The deal the Biden administration brokered in September would raise annual pay by 24% over several years, raising the average pay for rail workers to $110,000 by 2024. But strikes are often about much more than wages. The companies have also long refused to provide paid sick leave or to stop demanding that their workers have inflexible and unpredictable schedules.

The Biden administration had to cajole the rail companies into offering a single personal day, while workers demanded 15 days of sick leave. Companies had offered zero. The agreement did remove penalties from workers who took unpaid sick or family leave, but this would still leave a group of well-paid workers whose daily lives are filled with stress and fear.

What lies ahead

Seeing highly paid workers threaten to take action that would surely compound strains on supply chains at a time when inflation is at a four-decade high may not win rail unions much public support.

A coalition representing hundreds of business groups has called for government intervention to make sure freight trains keep moving, and it’s highly likely that Congress will again impose a decision on workers under the Railway Labor Act. The Biden administration, which has shown significant sympathy to unions, has resisted supporting such a step so far.

No one should expect the military to intervene like it did in the 19th century. But labor law remains tilted toward companies, and I believe that if the government were to compel striking rail workers back on the job, the move might find a receptive audience.

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