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Humanizing the Rail Strike

Photo by Gabriel Sanchez on Unsplash

It’s the middle of the night. You’ve just started getting comfortable in bed when your phone rings. This is something completely unexpected. You open your phone to find that it is your job. They need someone to come down and run cargo across a few states. You happen to be the only option. So you need to get out of bed, get dressed, and head to work at a moment’s notice. As much as this sounds frustrating, it is the reality for many railroad workers. One that has been harsh enough to push them to the edge and strike out against unfair conditions. 

Constantly traveling between states and areas, the job is a lot to handle. And the issue isn’t just with pay, but rather how limited the workers are. Each train requires an engineer and conductor who have to be on call at all times. In the middle of celebrations, late at night, early in the morning, none of that matters. In fact, these rules have gone as far as to lead employees to quit, creating shortages. This led to support surrounding the strike. According to a survey by Railroad Workers United, almost 96% of the workers who responded to the survey said that railroaders should be able to exercise their right to strike on September 16th, when it has been planned for. 

While this isn’t an issue that has been left alone, the attempts to talk down the rail unions didn’t initially lead to great results. The Presidential Emergency Board even mentioned recommendations for the railroads and the unions. But these recommendations don’t touch upon the issues the union cares about most; having no time off and often being on call. It wasn’t until Biden made a tentative deal only a day before the strike was supposed to happen. But of course, emotions still run high and not all demands have been met. Only the considerations about sick leave and allowing workers time off for medical emergencies has happened. This means the chance of a future rail strike is still possible.

That’s why it’s important to examine how this might affect the economy, as it’s claimed to.

Often undersold is the heavy reliance upon trains and freights. While trucks are responsible for moving lots of goods, maybe more so than trains are. The massive amount of cargo they carry runs the country and is responsible for ensuring a lot of goods get to where they need to be. In fact, estimates say that a rail strike could cause more than $2 billion in losses per day.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, 52% of freight cargo consists of construction materials, chemicals, food, metals, paper, pulp, minerals, cars, car components, agriculture products, and energy products. These items and materials all help to make our day-to-day lives easier. If this is lost, the economy won’t just be hurt, and it’ll all go away. 

With an already weak supply chain, a strike has the potential to exacerbate long-held issues.

It will affect farmers who rely on these trains to store and transport crops to avoid spoilage. Additionally, trains often carry fertilizer to farmers to help ensure higher crop yields, keeping prices somewhat fair. Without that existing, farmers and consumers will be put in peril. 

The worst part of this is that there is no backup plan. No other transportation can take all these materials to where they’re supposed to go. In fact, pre-existing rail disruptions have been blamed for the already high food costs.

Despite all of this, it doesn’t only affect those within the United States. Many countries around the world rely upon the goods produced within America. It’s important to consider the state of Ukraine during wartime, countries in the Middle East, and according to a World Atlas study, many African countries. The countries mentioned would also face harsh conditions resulting from a potential rail strike.

While all of this is horrible, the reason why a strike was going to happen, and still might, must also be examined.

Interestingly, a lot of concern about the economy during talks about this train strike have been propagated. Many online articles discuss the harms that will be done if the strike goes through and the talks attempting to prevent it. While there is nothing wrong with that, it also doesn’t consider how working conditions got so bad that workers felt forced into a corner. Either strike or suffer. This doesn’t mean the strike would be a good thing for the economy, or the majority of people. It has come down to what happens when these services aren’t running. Specifically, how that affects the collective society, not the railroads, and how they won’t agree to change conditions or the brutality that those in the field have to go through. Arguably, the decision the union made regarding striking has not been made lightly. 

Do you stand up for your own livelihood and put everyone else’s at risk, quit your job so that you no longer have to endure, or do you go along with it despite how badly you and your family are impacted? It’s a rather difficult question many rail workers have answered in different ways. But ultimately, it is a failure of the railway system as we rely on a handful of people to manage the sheer quantity of cargo we rely upon daily. Having an economy that rests on you and a family that relies on you is no easy task.

Instead of pitting the economy against the people, policymakers and companies should work to create conditions where both are allowed to thrive.

And even when it seems that this strike has been averted, hopefully this will serve as a jumping off point for more protective rights for these railroad workers.

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