Workers are lost in the story of the rail strike


Media bias this week is gross and glaring

These are four rail workers. Here are seven more…

And here’s one last one…

These are the people headed toward a major railway strike, yet in all of our major media outlets, there is not a single headline picture of the workers. CNN is still reporting on the queen, the queen, queen. Thank God, William extended an olive branch to Harry. USA Today, like many others, is reporting on the potential effect on Amtrak in their left web column, beside a major story about (wait for it) pro athletes having “eroding rights.” Fox News is reporting on the “woke Department of Defense.” Even MSNBC, from which I would expect more, has four stories related to Meghan and the monarchy on its MSNBC Daily roundup. Two others are about the former president.

The only major outlet that has given the story of the impending rail strike front-page web coverage today is The New York Times. Yet, that story makes the workers out to be the villain — a “threat” — to the supply chain. The strike could “harm the economy.” I couldn’t find a single major piece in our press today that gave voice to the workers. Lots of pictures of trains. Lots of photos of shipping containers and annoyed commuters. Lots of whiny quotes about how we are just getting back to normal, come on! But not a single profile of a rail worker. Not a paragraph about working conditions, unfair and undignified pay or the record year of profits rail companies had last year.

I finally found out why the workers are potentially striking. After too much digging, a piece by The Guardian today reported the reasons — the only outlet to use any adjectives about worker schedules or conditions.

The major national media does not seem to be willing or able to report from the perspective of actual working people. We only seem to report from the privileged perspective of America’s great corporations. Does the mainstream media ever tire of corporate puppetry? Story after story about this rail strike is about just how inconvenienced we will all be by rising prices, commuter rail shut-downs, and the cost of new automobiles. And just like that, once again, we are blaming inflation and the disruptions of our “seamless” modern life on those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.

Railway corporations, like BNSF Railway, owned by Berkshire Hathaway, reported record profits last year. BNSF is, according to its website,
“one of the largest freight railroad networks in North America, with 32,500 miles of rail across the western two-thirds of the United States.” In fact, BNSF Railway and Union Pacific — the country’s two largest and most profitable railroads — make up over 50% market share. The Railway is worth $88 billion. In 2020, it took in over $29 billion in revenue.

And yet their workers are working harder, longer hours, and under worsening conditions, including not being granted (unpaid) leave for doctor’s appointments. Can we please tell that story? This week, 1,300 New York Times journalists have banded together to stay remote. They are refusing to come back into the office until their contract demands are met. Good on them. But, hey, maybe they could write something about the rest of America’s working-class people — the ones who don’t work from a laptop?

Those workers are lost in our modern media mess.

The White House on Thursday morning announced it had reached a “tentative” agreement to avert a national rail strike that had threatened the nation’s economy.

President Biden said in a statement that the agreement would guarantee “better pay, improved working conditions, and peace of mind around their health care costs” for the workers.

The tentative deal — confirmed by a group representing freight rail operators — still faces several steps before it is formally ratified. The unions must still vote on it, but the White House’s blessing of the new terms suggests that the working groups have been closely involved. Often, the next step of the process can take several weeks, but during that time, union members agree not to strike.

The deal includes new leave policies, a significant concession by train carriers to workers who had demanded greater flexibility to be able to miss work for medical emergencies without being fired or punished, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe details of the negotiation not yet released.

As he pressed for a deal, Biden became personally animated about the lack of leaves, and he brought up repeatedly that he did not understand why workers could not be granted more flexible schedules, according to one of the people.

Negotiators had until Friday at 12:01 a.m. to reach a deal to avoid a major impact on the economy. Tens of thousands of jobs could have been affected, potentially snarling the shipment of freight and the movement of commuter trains all over the country.

As the deadline neared, negotiations shifted to Washington, where rail executives and labor leaders met at the Labor Department with Secretary Marty Walsh. Biden remained closely involved in the talks, and phoned Walsh and the negotiators at 9 p.m. Wednesday to encourage them to secure the tentative pact, said a person briefed on the discussions who was not authorized to talk to the media.

The implications of a rail strike could have been monumental, snarling the movement of goods and potentially leading to massive layoffs. Large parts of the nation’s economy move through the rail system. And the disruption on commuter trains also would have been felt across the country. Strikes were planned in major cities, including Stockton, Calif.; Cleveland; and Baltimore. This could have caused major supply chain disruptions, driving up prices on a range of goods during a period of high inflation.

The political consequences of a rail strike less than two months before the midterm elections also could have been enormous for Democrats, who could have been blamed for not securing a deal. Biden was involved in the talks all week, as were three of his Cabinet secretaries, his top economic adviser, and his chief of staff.

Rail operators had begun preparing for a strike before the Friday deadline. Amtrak was beginning to suspend long-distance rail service, and some freight operations were also being halted. It was unclear how quickly those operations might resume based on the tentative deal.

A Labor Department official confirmed that a deal “that balances the needs of workers, businesses, and our nation’s economy” was reached early Thursday morning after 20 consecutive hours of negotiations between rail companies and union negotiators.

“Secretary Walsh and the Biden administration applaud all parties for reaching this hard-fought, mutually beneficial deal,” a Labor Department official said. “Our rail system is integral to our supply chain, and a disruption would have had catastrophic impacts on industries, travelers, and families across the country.”

At issue were the rail carriers’ attendance policies, which conductors and engineers said punish them and put them at risk of termination for attending to routine doctor’s visits and family emergencies. Two of the largest and most politically powerful unions representing railroad workers said they would strike if the carriers did not allow them to call out of work. The impasse over this issue continued this week.

Biden appointed an emergency board in July to mediate the dispute that had reached an impasse, following two years of negotiations between six of the largest freight carriers and 12 unions that represent 115,000 railroad workers. The emergency board’s proposal included a 24 percent wage increase by 2024 and larger bonuses, but it did not address workers’ concerns with the carriers’ attendance policies.

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh speaks during an Equal Pay Day event on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 15. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Health-care costs were also a point of contention between unions and railway carriers. The carriers had proposed lifting a cap on workers’ healthcare premiums.

“This round of bargaining is not about [wages],” said Jared Cassity, a conductor and the national legislative director at SMART Transportation Division, one of the unions that reached a tentative deal. “It’s about absentee policies and the ability of folks to receive preventive care without retribution. People are getting fired for going to the doctor, even with documentation from doctors.”

The details of the tentative agreement reached on Thursday morning have not been shared, and could still be voted down by members who need to ratify the agreement.

Earlier this week, two unions rejected proposed tentative agreements brokered by labor leaders, indicating broader anger among union members about the deal proposed by Biden’s board.

The tentative deal caps a frenzy of work at the highest levels of the U.S. government to prevent a strike that would have significantly disrupted the nation’s supply chains.

Biden faced pressure in recent days to ensure the strike was avoided while not undercutting the union workers whom he vowed to defend as president.

U.S. adds 315,000 jobs in August, a bright spot of the economy

White House aides had prepared contingency plans aimed at protecting the nation‘s drinking and energy systems in case of an emergency.

In a statement Thursday morning, the National Carriers’ Conference Committee, which represents freight rail companies involved in the talks, said it had reached “tentative agreements” with the various labor unions.

“NCCC would like to thank the unions’ leadership teams for their professionalism and efforts during the bargaining process,” the rail group said. “We also would like to thank the Biden administration — in particular Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh and his team, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and the board members and staff at the National Mediation Board — for their assistance in reaching these settlements.”

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