We’ve seen it over and over. A crisis like the recent potential railroad strike is only fixed when the working people who truly drive our economy are asked to once again “tighten our belts” and make concessions.
President Biden was given a terrible choice: support workers exercising their fundamental right to collectively bargain, demand fair treatment, and, if necessary, strike — which would potentially wreck the national economy — or use the government’s unique power over the rail industry and force workers to accept a contract, damaging his record as a worker-first leader who wants to rebuild the American middle class. President Biden put the American economy first.
But it didn’t need to come to this.
Strict efficiency requirements instituted by the railroad industry create a world making no allowances for realities like getting sick or not having child care. Rail workers had no sick days. Now they have one. Railroad companies will not go beyond that, and the workers aren’t ready to accept even large raises to make up for the flexibility they need, and most – but not all – of us enjoy.
Here in Pennsylvania, a rail strike would be devastating to our manufacturing and agriculture industries, and lead to bare shelves at stores just in time for the holidays.
While I don’t fully agree with the President’s decision, I understand it. No matter the choice, it was ultimately bad for the same people. Working Americans would suffer if railroads and the economy screeched to a halt but undermining collective bargaining rights also hurts workers.
Who didn’t have to worry about the President’s decision? The gigantic railroad companies. Either the economy or the workers’ will to strike would have collapsed before any railroad faced meaningful consequences. In fact, four days after the strike was averted Norfolk Southern Railroad held an investor event bragging how large shareholder dividends and stock buybacks were.
How did the world’s most powerful nation get boxed into this corner? These types of “too big to fail” circumstances create situations where the entire economy can be devastated by the actions of executives in one industry. Making it worse are the brittle supply chains across industries subject to collapse at any moment. Unfortunately, every major sector of our economy is plagued by overconcentration after decades of corporate consolidation.
Like a house built on stilts, the monopolized American economy sways in any strong wind.
When a production issue at a single plant affected the baby formula industry, where only four companies monopolize 90% of American production, the richest country on earth shockingly had trouble feeding its newborn children.
When Taylor Swift fans counted on Ticketmaster, the only major concert ticket retailer, to handle actually selling tickets, the system collapsed, and people realized buying a concert ticket is harder and more expensive than ever before thanks to this monopoly.
Railroads aren’t as TV-news-friendly as hungry babies or furious Swifties, so nobody notices over 80% of the rail freight industry is controlled by four large railroad companies that explicitly don’t compete in most markets. In 1980, there were 33 major railroads; today, there are 7.
Until we recognize that many vital sectors of the American economy are concentrated into the hands of so few that they are no longer competitive, we will continue to lurch from one economic crisis to another. We can only exit this “polycrisis” by reinvigorating anti-trust law, adding consumer protections and enhancing worker bargaining rights. These are all on the agenda of the new PA House Democratic Majority, because it’s how we truly return power to working people and rebuild the middle class, so workers aren’t the only ones asked to sacrifice in difficult times.
We’ve done it before and can do it again. If we don’t, these issues will carry on unabated, and our country’s monopolized economy will continue to force working Americans, policymakers and even the President of the United States into impossible choices that will continue to put the American promise of prosperity for the working class at significant risk in the future.
Nick Pisciottano is chairman of the newly formed House Democratic Subcommittee on Labor, Energy and Development. He represents the 38th Legislative District in Allegheny County, which includes parts of the Monongahela Valley and the South Hills.
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