Railway Worker 6387daac3a906

Lessons From a Strike That Didn’t Happen

Nov. 30, 2022
The food & beverage industry can look to the railroads as an example of how not to treat workers.

Like most of the country, I breathed a sigh of relief when Congress voted Nov. 30 not to allow a railroad strike.

Then I started considering the rail workers’ situation. I knew a little about it from news briefs I had written about the threatened strike. But a terrific article from Vice.com got me thinking about their plight in more depth.

This is even up to Congress in the first place because of what Vice calls “a law whose roots date back to the railroad robber baron days.” Whenever the unions that represent rail workers reach an impasse with the railroad owners and threaten to strike, Congress can step in and forbid it by imposing a settlement on both sides.

That Congress would do so was pretty much a given after President Biden signaled earlier in the week that he would be open to it. It was clear that he acted reluctantly, beginning his statement by calling himself “a proud pro-labor President,” but he went on to say that “the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families.”

That, in a nutshell, is why the rail workers have the deck stacked against them. For any politician, even a “pro-labor” one, the fallout from a rail strike would be devastating – doubly so with a fragile supply chain battered for more than a year by the pandemic. Any politicians who had the power to stop a strike, but chose not to do so, would be absolutely crucified by their opponents. When you weigh that against the political clout of the rail workers and their unions, it’s no contest.

What’s even more depressing is why the rail workers almost went on strike – and why the conditions that drove them to it are unlikely to change.

Their biggest grievances are rooted in scheduling and a lack of days off. According to the Vice article, the highly consolidated railroad industry has been cutting back on maintenance and other vital functions for years, leaving itself severely short-staffed. As a result, not only has management resisted giving workers sick days – any sick days at all – but has imposed a system where workers must constantly be “on call,” ready to rush to the trainyard at a moment's notice. And these are trains, that move, meaning you can’t come home from a shift as you would from a factory; you have to wait, usually at your own expense, to be called for a trip back to where you live with the family you so seldom get to see.

This should sound familiar. Except for the moving-workplace part, they’re exactly the kind of grievances that drove workers at three major food companies into strikes last year. Companies can’t get labor, or are driven by slavishness to the bottom line to deplete their workforces. They then push the workers they do have to the breaking point.

In its imposed settlement, Congress is mandating some paid sick days for the workers, but is doing virtually nothing about the rest of their working conditions. So that bomb hasn’t been disarmed; it just has a longer fuse.

The food & beverage industry should take notice. You still have (for now) trains available to take your goods wherever they need to go. But if you don’t start treating your workers notably better than the railroads treat theirs, you won’t have any goods to ship. And Congress won’t be able to step in to save you from yourself.

About the Author

Pan Demetrakakes | Senior Editor

Pan has written about the food and beverage industry for more than 25 years. His areas of coverage have included formulations, processing, packaging, marketing and retailing. Pan worked for Food Processing Magazine for six years in the 1990s, where he was operations editor (his current role), touring dozens of food plants of every description. He has also worked for Packaging and Food & Beverage Packaging magazines, the latter as chief editor, during which he won three ASBPE awards. He is a graduate of Stanford University with a BA in communications.

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