Recent rail talks seek to avoid a shutdown that neither Biden nor the US can afford

A quarter into the 21st century, it’s a little surprising that a rail network that most Americans probably don’t even think about still forms the nation’s backbone. But the latest outbreak is far from the only time in history that labor disputes in this critical industry have threatened to disrupt the entire nation, and have turned into major political dramas as a result. Without freight rail, the country cannot function properly, as could be seen in the coming weeks if furious talks in Washington fail to resolve a dispute over working conditions for engineers and conductors and an early morning strike. Friday hours

The dispute may focus on the railroads, but it is emblematic of a broader trend in industrial relations in modern America, as hard-pressed workers in businesses, from retail to health care to transportation, demand invigorating working conditions to maximize their profit potential. and turn to the unions for help.

If talks in Washington fail to make progress and a strike drags on for a week or more, the consequences could be dire.

Roughly 30% of America’s goods move by rail. If the wide trains, some with 240 cars, do not move, the country will have to find an impossible 80,000 truck drivers to make up the shortage. It may seem counterintuitive, but a rail strike could send auto gas prices soaring again. Because of this, refiners will struggle to get enough crude oil from rail shipments. Freshly harvested crops will become stuck, unable to reach the processing plants and may spoil. Farming groups are already warning of the threat of stockpiles of fertilizers being transported by rail and needed for the next planting season. There could be shortages of food and other items in stores, and prices could rise again, adding to the current scourge of inflation. New and used cars will become more expensive if factories can’t get the parts they need for their assembly lines. And ports that were shut down during the pandemic could fill up again, which would quickly send shockwaves around the world in a major problem for the U.S. economy.

Should it last for weeks, the strike could once again highlight the fragility of the supply chain networks that underpin modern life and how it doesn’t take long for serious damage to occur.

These painful consequences, which can touch every American, explain why Labor Secretary Marty Walsh’s talks in Washington are so important.

There are two main unions facing rail operators in the talks: the Guild of Locomotive and Train Engineers and the SMART Transport Division. While Biden, a train enthusiast, enjoyed a different mode of transportation — cars — during a visit to the Detroit Auto Show on Wednesday, he personally called union leaders and rail companies earlier this week and briefed him repeatedly on Wednesday. At the Department of Labor railroad interviews, after 12 p.m. His team is working with carriers, truckers and air freight companies to see how other modes of transportation can keep moving in the event of a strike.

Biden’s team is struggling to deal with a political nightmare

The rail shutdown isn’t just a threat to the daily lives of millions of Americans. It’s a huge problem for Biden and the Democrats, first of all, because they know their cheering prospect of weathering a Republican midterm wave could be dashed by another devastating shock to the economy that sends prices even higher and shatters the sense of normalcy promised by Biden. to recover Another surge in inflation caused by a rail strike could also force the Federal Reserve to extend its aggressive interest rate strategy, which is expected to raise another level next week, thus increasing the chances of an overcorrection that sends the economy into recession.

The president, with the approval of key elements of Congress, is aggressively selling that America is back on track and its economy is ready to roar. A rail strike could quickly tarnish his credibility in selling that narrative.

In a broader sense, the rail dispute pulls Biden between two strands of his political identity. It belongs to the president of decades of unionism. He needs the movement’s support to boost turnout in November and doesn’t want to see workers pressured into accepting a bad deal. On the other hand, the success of his entire presidency rests on lowering inflation and preventing Republicans from building majorities on Capitol Hill that could turn them into lame ducks.

Analysis: A rail strike would do serious damage, and that's the point

Republicans, seeking to divert the midterm debate from the Supreme Court’s overturning of abortion rights, have already opened up on the railroad issue. The GOP tried and failed to pass a bill in the Senate that would have included the agreements most railroad unions have made with the companies and averted the strike.

“President Biden should fix this himself already. Democrats need to let this pass,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted.

But some Democrats are unwilling to pressure unions. Even if the strike goes ahead, there will be considerable pressure on Congress to act to implement a settlement under laws governing critical industries such as freight rail. The GOP measure was ultimately blocked by progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, a two-time Democratic presidential nominee. The Vermont independent blasted railroad companies for siphoning off billions in profits and paying their CEOs millions in compensation while imposing atrocious working conditions.

“The key issue in the current negotiations is not about wages. They are about working conditions in the industry that are completely unacceptable and almost unbelievable,” Sanders said, criticizing a system that requires and does not offer severance pay to some workers. there is a lot of call to dispatch to work on the trains 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

A long-standing crisis

Arthur Wheaton, director of Labor Studies at Cornell University’s ILR Labor Institute, said cost-cutting and consolidation in the rail industry predated the pandemic and led to the current impasse.

“The railroads tried very hard to reduce the number of employees and actively reduce the number of people working for them in order to increase their profits or get a higher return on investment in order to get more investment from Wall Street,” Wheaton said. . But this reduction in labor resulted in worsening conditions for workers, who were already working long hours, and could raise safety concerns given the dangerous loads carried by some trains. The “call” system that Sanders referred to is at the center of the current conflict.

“That’s not sustainable for a family or sustainable for your health long-term. You’d like to be able to go to bed knowing you don’t have to work for the next 12 hours instead of saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got to wait and see if the phone rings,'” Wheaton said.

The threatened shutdown of the railroad would be the first major industrial strike since 1992, when Congress moved with unusual speed to end a work stoppage just two days later amid dire economic consequences, including layoffs at mines that could no longer ship coal. The strike shut down almost all freight and passenger railways in the country and, as with the current drama, threatened to turn into a political storm in an election year.

The question with this new dispute is whether an increasingly polarized Congress can agree on terms to end the industrial action or whether the burgeoning economic crisis will leave competitors with no choice.

Throughout the history of American industry, the XX. and XIX. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, railroad strikes often arose because of poor wages or wage cuts or difficult and dangerous conditions. They were often oppressed by the government or industrial barons, sometimes amid scenes of violence. But they are also written in the flower of the labor movement. And they also established the leverage that is playing out in the current negotiations between union and business leaders in Washington.

Then and now, the threat of long-term rail shutdowns has serious economic repercussions, where the conflict ends up becoming a major political issue that the nation’s leaders can ultimately help resolve — for their own good and for everyone else’s.