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Railroad Workers’ Strike Threatens US Economy

For literally centuries, people who work in the railroad industry have been subject to lousy pay and unfair work agreements. Railroad worker strikes happen all the time but a recent one, which officially ignited in September of 2022 is gaining more coverage than most. Although there has been much wood placed on the fire, a significant spark to the current tension between railroad workers, their employers, and the government was the death of a locomotive engineer named Aaron Hiles. Hiles, who was employed by BNSF —a freight rail carrier known to be one of the largest in the U.S.— was feeling strange one day and booked a doctor’s appointment. Hours before his appointment BNSF unexpectedly called Hiles into work. Due to a recently adopted attendance system, there was no way that Hiles could follow through on his doctor’s appointment without suffering penalties. On June 16th, just a few weeks after he was unable to make his doctor’s appointment, Hiles had a heart attack and died. The location of his heart attack happened to be an engine room on a moving BNSF freight train. Repercussions of the points attendance system that unions have deemed the strictest in the nation are not alone in their severity, railroad workers are subject to much more than lacking the ability to take time off for necessities such as doctor appointments or funerals. Rail workers have no sick days, and stories of workers nearly falling asleep on the job are more than common. Pay is not great, and when labor unions do finally succeed in negotiating higher wages the success is often counteracted by rising health care costs, as well as inflation’s impact on other areas of life. 

Railroad workers, a labor force Forbes advisor Kelley Smith notes as “arguably the backbone to the economy” are often forgotten about. Hundreds of thousands of rail workers intended to go on strike this past Friday, September 16th. This strike, which has now been averted, would have had extremely impactful economic consequences. It was estimated that a railroad shutdown would have cost the U.S. economy $2 billion per day (Halpert, Forbes Magazine, Sept. 12th, 2022). Everyday goods, as well as gasoline, would have increased in price or simply not been available. After the Department of Labor hosted a 20-hour negotiation session between labor unions and rail management a tentative deal offering better pay and more time off was reached. President Biden even called in personally to speak to negotiators. The deal is said to give union members an immediate 14% raise with back pay dating to 2020, as well as other “successes” for rail labor unions such as $1,000 cash bonuses each year of a tentative five-year contract running from 2020-2024 (Diamond, Isidore, and Yurkevich, CNN Business, Sept. 15th, 2022) The question is will this be enough and will it sustain the system and, more importantly, the workers behind what is considered a foundation of the U.S. supply chain?

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