Cancel OK

Threat of rail strike ends

freight train

Both the Senate and House of Representatives have approved a measure enforcing the Biden administration’s agreement to settle the rail strike.

Since it is President Biden’s measure, he will sign it.

This brings to an end the threat of a national rail strike, which had been hovering over the nation since the summer.

richard smoley produce blueprints

Like many political outcomes in the United States, it is probably the best that can be expected under the circumstances.

It is not an unequivocal defeat for the rail workers. Eight of the twelve unions involved voted to ratify the measure. Even in the SMART Tranportation Division, the nation’s largest rail union, the vote was almost evenly split, with 49 percent voting to ratify it, according to the Washington Post. Senate votes to block rail strike, sending a deal to Biden’s desk – The Washington Post

In any event, the dispute, in the end, was not about wages—union workers will get a roughly 24 percent pay increase, retroactive to 2020—but about paid sick leave, which the workers wanted but which the railroads would not grant.

Nonetheless, seven days of paid sick leave a year—which the unions failed to get—hardly seems like a crushing burden on the employers.

“The unions maintain that railroads can easily afford to add paid sick time when they are recording record profits. Several of the big railroads involved in these contract talks reported more than $1 billion profit in the third quarter,” said AP.

“Without a doubt, there is more to be done to further address our employees’ work-life balance concerns,” admitted Ian Jefferies, CEO of the Association of American Railroads (AAR), an industry group.

In any case, the unions were unlikely to get a better deal from the Republican-controlled House that will be seated in January.

It is interesting to look across the Atlantic and take a look at the national rail strike that is affecting France right now.

This weekend—December 2-5—will see a slowdown in rail service across that nation. Here the issue is the status of 10,000 conductors, who want improved wages and career development.

But the situation there is very different from that in the United States.

The European and American rail systems are, in a sense, mirror images of each other. The United States has excellent freight rail service and poor passenger service. Europe has the opposite.

Thus the French slowdown has very different effects. Since many French people commute by rail, a weekend slowdown will be less disruptive than one during the week.

In the United States, only about 5 percent of all workers commute by public transportation, including trains, according to a 2019 study by the Census Bureau.

As for the produce industry, it accounts for a small percentage of the 1.6 million carloads of food shipped by rail. Of this amount, grain and soybean products account for some 660,000 carloads. Beverages make up another 350,000; canned and preserved, 140,000 carloads of canned and preserved foods; 75,000 carloads of meat. (Figures are from the AAR.)

Fresh fruits and vegetables would be included, then, in the remaining 375,000 carloads of “other miscellaneous food products.”

One study from 2018 found that only 3 percent of California’s exported perishable produce travels by rail.


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.