Battle over paid vacation threatens to cripple US economy

Battle over paid vacation threatens to cripple US economy

  • American railroad workers prepare to strike over their latest negotiations with management.
  • Joe Biden is urging Congress to codify an existing deal as is, calling the timing “critical.”
  • A strike could threaten car and food shipping as well as vacation travel and even drinking water.

Jeff Kurtz used to do something that might seem impossible to American railroaders today: take time off easily.

“You worked for a while, and when you felt like you were fed up with this place, you’d leave for a few days and come back and you’d be fine,” Kurtz, a locomotive engineer for over 40 years. years and a former Iowa state representative, Insider said. Today, he says, “things have gradually gotten worse.”

Three years of negotiations between railway workers and management over the issue could soon culminate in an economy-disrupting strike, after the latest tentative agreement provides for just one day of paid personal leave a year. This is too far from the 15 days of paid sick leave demanded by railroad workers and which, according to the railroads, would cost them $688 million a year.

“People are going to work with the flu and work around very dangerous equipment sick because we don’t have any time off,” a BNSF railroad conductor for more than a decade told Insider. “When you’re on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you can’t make an appointment with the doctor or the dentist, take a day off for your wife’s birthday. free time.”

The group representing the management of the nation’s largest freight railways defended the current deal in a statement, noting that it includes the biggest wage increases in nearly five decades and level-of health care coverage. platinum. But four out of 12 rail unions have rejected the deal and are bracing for a work stoppage that could mean canceled holiday trips, undelivered packages and unsafe drinking water.

But not if President Joe Biden gets what he wants. In a statement Monday, he urged Congress to codify the agreement between railroad workers and operators as is, calling it a “critical moment for our economy” that cannot be governed by “our firm belief in better outcomes for workers.” — and saying a strike could “throw this nation into a devastating rail freight shutdown.”

In the United States, trains carry products such as cars and trucks, packaged food, crops, chemicals such as chlorine and fertilizers and coal – about 40% of goods shipped each year and more than any other mode of transport. Now that railroad workers are part of a wave of American workers threatening to take action for better benefits, their fight could send shock waves that would plunge the already faltering US economy into a recession.

A worker drives near freight trains and shipping containers in a Union Pacific Intermodal Terminal yard on November 21, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.

A worker drives near freight trains and shipping containers at a Union Pacific Intermodal Terminal rail yard November 21 in Los Angeles.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Railroad workers helped pull the United States out of a supply chain crisis — and they can throw the economy back into chaos

A strike could cost the US economy $2 billion a day, according to the US Chamber of Commerce, a business interest group. It would start by sending ripple effects all the way down the supply chain, Ted Stank, faculty director of the Global Supply Chain Institute at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, told Insider.

Retailers and shoppers wouldn’t immediately notice the effects of a strike, he said, because most consumer products you would buy in a store are transported by truck. But, he added, if materials typically shipped by rail, such as oil, coal and timber, have to be temporarily transported by truck, it could increase shipping costs across the board. This would in turn increase retail prices.

This ripple effect of supply chain inflation may sound familiar. Now that the US supply chain is on the verge of recovery and inflation appears to have peaked, we are seeing a “pent up response from workers who were continuously at work throughout these disruptions,” Jess Dankert, vice president of supply chain for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, told Insider.

JoAnna Vance calls for paid vacation

A lawyer named JoAnna Vance joined families, parents and caregivers as they brought their stories and voices to Capitol Hill to call on Congress to include paid family and medical leave in the ‘Build Back’ legislative package. Better”.

Paul Morigi/Getty Images for PL+US

After all, hourly workers such as truck drivers and dock workers have been sweating on the frontlines of the supply chain crisis and carrying the title of “essential worker” throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

“People have watched our industry shrink and watched the railroads demand more and more of us, and discipline people because they were sick or their families were sick,” said Michael Paul Lindsey, engineer at locomotive in Idaho, member of the steering committee. for Railroad Workers United, told Insider.

While the praise for essential workers has faded, railway workers still hold a lot of power in the economy. In 2021, according to the Association of American Railroads, rail freight carried 3.3 million railcars of coal, one-third of the country’s grain exports and 2.2 million railcars of chemicals. During a strike, the chlorine transported by rail and used to clean drinking water may run out, affecting the production of safe water. Rail also carries 75% of the country’s new cars and trucks, which are already in short supply.

“No one benefits from a rail work stoppage – not our customers, not railroad workers, not the American economy,” said Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ian Jefferies. , in a press release.

The BNSF railroad conductor, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job, told Insider she didn’t think a strike would have such an outsized impact on the economy as the president and the railroad companies claim. “If we were actually allowed to strike, it wouldn’t last very long because companies can’t afford to lose that kind of money,” she said. “Shareholders would go absolutely nuts if we could go on strike for a day.”

Lindsey, the locomotive engineer, isn’t surprised that Biden is asking Congress to intervene on behalf of the economy, though he’s still hopeful someone can do something for working people.

“It hurts all the work,” he said. “Anyone who tries to unionize – or even if they’re union-free, just trying to get better working conditions – it shows that in the end big companies will always get what they want. want, no matter what.”

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