Making The Trains Run On Time

[ Posted Wednesday, September 14th, 2022 – 15:30 UTC ]

President Biden is facing a crisis. The nation's freight railways might shut down in the wee hours of Friday morning, due to a strike. This puts Biden in an incredible bind for a number of reasons, but the one most important politically will be one of optics. You can almost feel the headline-writers of America salivating as they test out their clever variations on: "He Couldn't Make The Trains Run On Time." This is a throwback to the old political joke that "Benito Mussolini may have been a fascist dictator and all of that, but at least he made the trains run on time." This claim was actually false -- it was little more than fascist propaganda -- but the saying lives on in the political lexicon. And Joe Biden loves trains. A railroad strike on his watch would be devastating for his image.

Of course, a railroad strike would be a lot more devastating to a lot more people for much bigger reasons. The agricultural sector would essentially shut down. Something like one-third of the country's freight moves by rail. It would destroy all the progress made to improve the country's supply chains, and it could spill over into halting commuter rail as well. It'd be a major blow to the economy. These are all real-world effects (as opposed to political optics) and if it went on for more than a few days, there will be bare shelves in stores across America -- which will impact just about everybody. It'd be an enormously big deal, in other words.

This crisis could be averted in a number of ways. Congress could intervene. The rail companies could back down from their Draconian sick leave demands (they have not budged, as of yet). Or the "cooling-off period" where the two sides negotiate could even be extended, which would effectively punt the ball -- although that might make a strike threat even more daunting, if a strike actually happened at any time during the "Christmas buying season."

Whatever happens, it's going to happen fast. Midnight Thursday (the strike could start as early as 12:01 A.M. on Friday) isn't all that far away. The threat of the strike is already having an impact. Biden's beloved Amtrak is already halting long-distance routes, to avoid stranding people before they get to their destination. Freight which is volatile or perishable has already halted (which impacts agriculture, because it includes the fertilizers and chemicals farmers need) so it won't spoil sitting in a railyard sidetrack somewhere short of its destination. The preparations for a strike, on both sides, have already begun.

The remaining dispute isn't over pay, it's over leave time. So far, the rail carriers have not budged on their position, but the Unions know they'd easily win the battle for public opinion. Here is the big sticking point:

A crucial issue preventing an agreement is some of the largest carriers' points-based attendance policies that penalize workers, up to termination, for going to routine doctor's visits or attending to family emergencies. Conductors and engineers say that they can be on call for 14 consecutive days without a break and that they do not receive a single sick day, paid or unpaid.

"All we're asking is folks to be able to go to routine doctor's visits without pay, but they have refused to accept our proposals," said Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET). "The average American would not know that we get fired for going to the doctor. This one thing has our members most enraged. We have guys who were punished for taking time off for a heart attack and COVID. It's inhumane."

Pierce is right. That is inhumane. This is, after all, why Unions were formed -- to fight against such abusive practices by management. Railroads used to have a much bigger impact on the American economy, which is why things like the 8-hour workday were achieved through rail strikes in the past. But "no sick pay, paid or unpaid" is pretty tough to justify, even without just having gone through a nationwide pandemic.

Joe Biden, as I said, is in a bind for a number of reasons. He's overseen major improvements in the supply chain (remember last Christmas season?) and the country is finally getting out from under the giant shadow that COVID cast upon us all. So he really would like to keep the trains running. Any president would, even one without Biden's personal affinity for rail travel. But part of Biden's image is also as a champion for the Unions. He's got to respect the Union's point of view, here, but without appearing biased towards them. Finding a solution rather than letting the strike actually take place would be a real achievement.

Congress could step in as well, although so far the Republicans are offering to just force the Unions to accept the rules as they are and get back to work. That's not a very popular position with the Union members, obviously. Democrats have not responded with their own proposed legislative solution, but time is fast running out for such a last-minute legislative intervention.

Joe Biden's got less than a day and a half to fix this. At this point, it is not clear that it can be fixed in that period of time, which is why both sides are already preparing for the eventuality of a strike. Can Biden keep the trains running on time? Or will the rails go silent early Friday morning? Will the first rail strike in 30 years happen during the term of the most rail-friendly president ever? Or will Biden be able to somehow dodge that political black eye? Stay tuned....

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


6 Comments on “Making The Trains Run On Time”

  1. [1] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    CW, I think you're overdoing the hand wringing. Of course both sides are preparing for a strike. If they weren't we wouldn't be having this conversation in the first place, duh.

    Neither side wants a strike and that Friday deadline is a lot more likely to come and go with negotiations continuing.

    Biden not being able to keep the trains running? Hmmm, well if Dictator Mussolini couldn't keep Italian trains running on time, why would anybody think Biden could do so in our Constitutional Republic complete with an obstructionist GQP trying to sabotage Biden at every step?

    I hope you're not unduly still thinking in conventional wisdom terms --

    There's inflation and it's Bidens fault! All is lost! There's a railroad strike and it's Biden's fault! All is lost. People always decide by Labor Day! All is lost!

    Today's column was underwhelming. Could we please reduce the wetting your pants at every turn?

  2. [2] 
    Mezzomamma wrote:

    Let's hope there is a settlement--that the workers get time off without penalty for medical appointments and family emergencies. I was an hourly-paid adult ed teacher for some years, and it didn't seem right that if I couldn't get an appointment outside my working hours, I had to find my own substitute and forgo my pay or make up the time in some way, which didn't always work with my students' family responsibilities. Like the railway workers, 'too much' time off for us could mean being fired. So my sympathies are definitely with the workers.

    By the way, does anyone else think it would be a good idea for an engine driver, say, to see a doctor before having a heart attack or stroke on the job, and maybe prevent it?

  3. [3] 
    Mezzomamma wrote:

    PS: I've just now seen the WaPo headline: White House reaches tentative agreement to avert national rail strike, so perhaps Biden is still on a roll.

  4. [4] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Railroad worker's (engineers, conductors) jobs are at the top of the list for being totally susceptible to automation, robotics, etc. Strikes will incentivise their replacement.

  5. [5] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    Nope, CRS. Capitalism provides all the incentive to automate whenever financially feasible. A strike would have negligible effects on capitalism mission mantra of maximizing value to the Shareholders.

    Also, Management obviously isn't close to automation if they keep Employees in 24/7 on-call status for days and even a couple of weeks in a row, now are they?

    You appear to just be blurting out standard Conservative talking points Management always right! Unions and strikes are always bad!

  6. [6] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    From the NYT Tentative Deal

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