A Railroad Runs Through It. (But at What Cost?)

In order to avoid a nationwide rail strike, Congress passed a resolution last week that forces unions representing railroad workers to accept a contract agreement that fails to meet the labor demands unions have been fighting for for over two and a half years. The contract agreement makes it illegal for railroad workers to strike. 

Workers’ biggest concern is over paid sick leave, which still does not exist for railroad workers after the Senate last week struck down a sick leave proposal in tandem with the contract agreement. The proposal would have guaranteed seven paid sick leave days for railroad workers annually, a significant increase from the zero paid sick days railroad workers currently get.

Providing seven paid sick days would have cost the railroad industry only $321 million a year, which is less than 2% of their total profits, according to a joint statement released by a group of Democratic Senators in reaction to the resolution. Railroad companies made $21.2 billion in profits during the first three quarters of 2022, according to the statement. 

The benefits that are provided in the contract agreement include a 24% compounded wage increase over the five years of the contract (2020 to 2024) and one additional day of paid personal leave. 

President Biden pushed for the legislation’s quick passage out of fear for what a shutdown would mean for the economy, which relies heavily on the transportation of goods via freight train. A shutdown would have greatly affected rural America’s agriculture sector, which relies on trains to ship food products, fertilizers, and ethanol, according to the USDA

To put things in perspective, freight rails move about 61 tons of goods, such as food, cars, and clothing, for every Americaneach year, according to the Association of American Railroads, which represents railroad companies. 

President Biden commended Congress’ passage of the bill, saying the decision ensured that “communities will maintain access to clean drinking water. Farmers and ranchers will continue to be able to bring food to market and feed their livestock. And hundreds of thousands of Americans in a number of industries will keep their jobs.” 

Call me naive, but had the economy ground to a halt as politicians feared it would, I strongly believe corporations and the government would have jumped to meet railroad workers’ demands as quickly as possible to avoid a descent into chaos. 

Congress’ decision took away the only real bargaining chip workers have – the ability to strike, proving that even alleged pro-labor politicians like President Biden will only act on those principles to a point, before bending to the will of corporations. 

Judging from the Administration’s frantic actions last week, railroad workers are clearly indispensable, yet they’re not treated as such. Instead, big railroad companies perpetuate their own labor shortage in search of more profits for themselves, at the cost of everyone else. And Congress is allowing it.

Rural Reading List

Remember a couple months ago when I asked about rural newsrooms you know doing good work? In the same vein, I’d love to know what articles you’ve read of late that center rural stories. A crowd-sourced rural reading list is my pipe dream… help make it a reality! Send your favorite articles to claire@dailyyonder.com.

In Northern Minnesota, Autonomous Vehicles Are Hitting Rural Roads

If you visit rural Grand Rapids, Minnesota, anytime in the next 18 months, you may see something that you won’t find anywhere else in rural America: a shuttle service operated by self-driving cars.

Biden Pledges to Designate Avi Kwa Ame Monument in Nevada Honoring Tribes

In very good news, last week President Biden pledged to designate 450,000 acres of land in southern Nevada a national monument, protecting sacred land and sensitive desert habitat.

A Tiny Wisconsin Town Tried to Stop Pollution From Factory Farms. Then it Got Sued.

Laketown, Wisconsin, pop. ~1000 is being sued by the state’s biggest business lobbying group for passing an ordinance that requires nearby concentrated animal feedlot operators to report how they plan to mitigate pollution from their facilities.

One More Thing: The Fight for Georgia

All eyes are on Georgia today with the Senate runoff election. Like a lot of newsrooms, the Daily Yonder will be providing coverage on the race, but unlike many of those, we’ll be analyzing the rural voting data that rolls in. (And here’s what our analysis of election data from November revealed about political trends in the state.)

Stay tuned later this week for reporting on the race from our in-house data experts Sarah Melotte and Tim Marema!

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