A railroad strike has been averted. Will it inspire other unions?

Freight train cars sit in a Norfolk Southern rail yard on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022, in Atlanta. President Joe Biden said Thursday that a tentative railway labor agreement has been reached, averting a strike that could have been devastating to the economy before the pivotal midterm elections. (AP Photo/Danny Karnik)

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the labor landscape. More remote work is widely accepted for knowledge-intensive and technology-driven fields. Many jobs that require physical presence have been automated, and there have been stiff staffing reductions.

Despite less travel, physical flows of commodities and strategic items by railway remained steady.

Even so, between November 2018 and December 2020, 40,000 jobs in the railroad industry were eliminated. With a lean staffing constraint, companies tightened attendance and sick leave policies. Precision scheduling systems imposed disciplinary attendance policies. Inflexible on-call schedules invited punishment and termination of employment. The railroad strike threat reflects a high level of anger among union members.

Fortunately, major U.S. railroads and unions reached a deal last week after intense talks initiated by the Biden administration. Workers agreed not to strike until the union members accepted the deal over the next several weeks. The agreement includes an immediate 14.1 percent pay raise and another 24 percent wage increase over five years, from 2020 through 2024, plus $1,000 lump-sum payments in each of the next five years.

Still, union leaders have a lot of work to do to persuade their members to vote for this deal.

The news that a railroad strike has been averted is a relief for people who are concerned about another wave of supply-chain disruptions that raise fuel and food prices. Now the question is, “Will this be the end or just the beginning of more strikes?”

This is a good time for unions, if not the best. Biden is regarded as the most union-friendly president in decades. He has repeatedly promised to deliver on union-friendly policies such as the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. According to a Gallup poll, 68 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest rate since 1965.

The railroad strike threat won’t be over until union members approve the deal. But some lessons are worthy to note.

With the prolonged pandemic inconveniences over the past three years, the nation has very little tolerance left for supply chain disruptions. This can be a deterrence to any strike threats. At the same time, it can be a reason for taking such a step. Unions that handle strategic flows of goods and services know that their work might not be appreciated but their non-work receives attention.

Unions that represent critical logistics, transportation, energy and security sectors may consider the value of this moment. Workers at busy U.S. ports, interstate truck drivers and meat packers feel that their wage increases have not kept up with the national averages. When would their voices be heard, if not now?

When the union leadership that represents more than 20,000 union workers at 29 west coast ports sits down for labor negotiations, they will not limit their discussion to wages and benefits. Like the railroad unions, they’ll discuss quality-of-life issues — scheduling, safety and job conditions.

Union members who work for the vital flows of goods and services may find that this is their time to speak up about their own needs. Unions are watching closely to see if the Biden administration can boost the number of unionized, high-paying jobs in the renewable sectors.

Planning a rapid transition toward clean energy jobs, the White House promises to “decarbonize” the economy and “transform” America’s electricity sector with clean energy by 2035.

The natural gas, nuclear and coal power industries have strong unions, whereas a smaller fraction of solar industry workers and wind workers are unionized.

Up to 17 percent of jobs in fossil fuel industry sectors (automotive, oil companies, petroleum refiners, fuel transport and retail sales, electrical power generation and distribution and sales) are unionized.

The productivity performance requirements in clean energy sectors have not yet been proven. There is no real guarantee that renewable jobs will provide high-paying jobs in massive numbers.

Biden’s attempt to ensure good-paying union jobs requires more than a massive green investment. Such clean energy ecosystems require huge demand for clean energy products with mass production capabilities.

Such industry transformation requires time to build needed capabilities, change labor laws and develop workers with proper skill sets.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019 the median hourly wage for solar photovoltaic installers was $22.45, while the median hourly wage for wind turbine service technicians was $26.45. Comparative workers in the fossil fuel power sector report their hourly pay between $35.15 and $40.73.

In this regard, emerging clean energy sectors have three tasks: to ensure outstanding levels of productivity that justify good and high wages; to demonstrate that these sectors are capable of creating huge job opportunities that absorb these traditional union members to clean energy industry sectors; and, most importantly, to implement all at the right speed so that people are not rushed into accepting these rapid transitions.

The time of transitions means there is potentially ample room for growing conflicts. The new issues, along with the old ones that have been buried for years, may surface.

Unions that could not speak for themselves may find the strength to come forward. Certainly, the Biden administration hopes that union-led strikes may not erupt as the midterm elections draw near. Averting the railroad strike is a good move. But the question remains: What next?  

Paul Hong, Ph.D., is Distinguished University Professor of Global Supply Chain Management and chair of the Department of Information, Operation and Technology Management at Neff College of Business and Innovation of The University of Toledo.

Tags Biden COVID-19 pandemic Labor unions railroad strike Railroad union

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