After his administration reached a tentative agreement with freight executives on long-desired changes in working conditions and avoided a potentially disastrous strike, President Joe Biden declared a significant victory for train employees and organized labor on Thursday.
In his most recent Labor Day address in Pittsburgh, Biden, a longtime supporter of unions, stated that “unions established the middle class.”
However, after talks, led by his Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, lasted all day Wednesday and into the wee hours of Thursday, his intervention, including calls with union leaders and bosses in the crucial lead-up to the deal on Wednesday night, helped lift the threat of a dispute that could have had serious consequences for the economy and still-roaring inflation.
Given the labor movement’s significance in helping Democrats in the midterm elections in November, the agreement in principle was a political key aspect in validating Biden’s support for unions. However, it also prevented a protracted freight train closure that would have affected the economy, damaged the President’s political standing and opened him up to Republican criticism.
As “a triumph for tens of thousands of rail workers who worked hard during the pandemic,” Biden praised the tentative arrangement.
The main point of contention was not salary, but rather working circumstances. Some freight train engineers and conductors were subject to “on-call” rosters that may require employees to work at short notice, around-the-clock, seven days a week.
“This agreement is significant because we were able to negotiate attendance policies for the first time in recorded history, which is something we had hoped to do. Since the beginning of the negotiation cycle, we have been attempting to address the quality of life issue for our members “Pierce acknowledged the contribution of Biden, as did other union negotiators.
The agreement still need union members’ approval, so a strike is still a possibility. But if approved, the deal will undoubtedly be lauded by the President on the campaign road as yet another accomplishment for an administration, according to him, that is dedicated to bettering the lives of working- and middle-class Americans.
Huge freight trains that snake across the prairies, north to Canada, and south to Mexico would have been stopped for an extended period of time, resulting in a full-blown economic, social, and political crisis at a time when the country is still struggling to regain a fragile sense of normalcy after the Covid-19 pandemic and is experiencing the worst increases in food prices since 1979.
It’s a bit surprising that the train system still serves as the foundation of the American economy a quarter of a century into the twenty-first century. But the most recent confrontation is far from the only time in history that labor disputes in this crucial sector have threatened to disrupt the country and, as a result, have become high-stakes political dramas. Without freight rail, the nation cannot run efficiently.
The conflict may be centered on the railroads, but it also exemplifies a larger trend in labor relations in contemporary America, where workers who are squeezed into industries that are aggressively cut back for maximum profit potential, such as transportation, retail, and healthcare, demand livable working conditions and turn to unions for assistance.
A rail strike would have had severe consequences.
A third of all freight in America is transported by rail. The nation would need to recruit an unfeasible 80,000 truck drivers to make up the shortage if massive trains, some with 240 wagons, don’t run. Contrary to popular belief, a railroad strike would result in a significant increase in the cost of fuel for automobiles. This is because refineries would have trouble receiving enough crude oil from their train shipments. Recently harvested crops may rot because they would be stranded and unable to go to processing facilities. Farm organizations issued a warning over the danger to rail-transported fertilizer reserves that are required for the next planting season. Food and other products would have been in low supply at the stores, raising prices.