As you’ve probably heard, railroad workers were threatening to strike and may still do so if they don’t feel the tentative agreement is good enough. What you probably haven’t heard much about is why they were threatening to strike.

(Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.)

The railroad corporations, through consolidation, deregulation, and practicing extreme capitalism, have gain so much power that they have been making life miserable for their employees. They have also been a major contributor to the supply chain problems in the post-Covid period and to the high levels of inflation. One of the reasons it was so important for the Biden Administration to step in and negotiate a proposed settlement was that a strike would have further disrupted continuing supply chain problems and exacerbated inflation.

Since 1980, through mergers and acquisitions (that our government has failed to stop under antitrust laws), the 40 major railroad corporations have become six (Burlington Northern and Santa Fe [BNSF], Union Pacific, CSX, Canadian National, Norfolk Southern, and Canadian Pacific,) and four of them have roughly 85% of the freight business. [1]

Because the railroad corporations are focused in different areas, they operate with monopolistic power in much of their service territories. In 2012, 78% of train stations had service from only one railroad. This allows the railroad corporations to engage in the extreme capitalism that is running rampant in the U.S., generating huge profits by price gouging and aggressively squeezing labor and other costs. They have aggressively reduced surge capacity and redundancy to minimize costs, which have contributed to the bottlenecks and fragility in supply chains.

Deregulation has allowed the railroads to shed their obligations to serve the public, which were put in place after the robber barons of the late 19th century made fortunes from their railroads while running roughshod over the public interest. The railroads have dropped unprofitable routes leaving many small towns cutoff from efficient freight shipping. As a result, from 1980 to 2008, railroads reduced their miles of track by over 40%. Railroads are no longer required to treat similarly situated shippers equally; they can now cut special deals with big shippers putting small businesses at a disadvantage. Like the airlines, the railroads are increasing fees on customers, which some feel is a form of price gouging. In the third quarter of 2021, the railroads had doubled their fee revenue since the beginning of 2019 to about $800 million.

The profit margin in the industry (the percentage of revenue that is profit) soared from 15% in 2001 to 40% in 2021. In other words, for every $100 that the corporations received, $40 is now profit as opposed to $15 ten years ago. A big part of this increased profitability, is that the portion of revenue dedicated to paying employees has dropped from 34% to 20%, or, in other words, from $34 of every $100 or revenue to $20. [2] In 2019, the freight railroad industry was the most profitable industry in the country with a 51% profit margin. [3] As evidence of the high profitability of the railroad industry, all but one of the publicly traded railroad stocks outperformed the overall stock market over the ten-year period from 2011 to 2021. Union Pacific had the second-highest total return in the market over that period, rewarding its investors with an almost six-fold return, roughly a 20% gain each year.

These record profits are, for the most part, NOT being reinvested in the businesses but are being use to reward shareholders (including executives) through the buying of the corporations’ own stock and paying dividends. For the industry as a whole, these stock buybacks and dividends have totaled over $200 billion since 2010, averaging over $15 billion per year, and they are continuing. For example: [4]

  • Union Pacific: $5 billion in stock buybacks and dividends in the first half of 2022 from $22 billion in revenue and $6.5 billion in profits in 2021.
  • CSX: $3 billion in stock buybacks and dividends in the first half of 2022 from $12.5 billion in revenue and $3.8 billion in profits in 2021.
  • Canadian National: $2.3 billion in stock buybacks and dividends in the first half of 2022 from $11.5 billion in revenue and $3.9 billion in profits in 2021.

The railroad corporations have cut staff by one-third since 2016 and over 70% since 1980 as total employment in the railroad industry has dropped from 500,000 to under 135,000. This reduced workforce is generating more profits than ever for their employers but haven’t gotten a wage increase in over two years as their contract negotiations have dragged on and on. Train crews used to be five people but today are two. The corporations have even proposed reducing the number of engineers on a train from two to one, despite what would happen if a single engineer on a long freight train had a medical emergency with no one else onboard. This would be like having an airplane with no co-pilot.

Many have called the working conditions at the railroads inhumane. Workers’ schedules are often unpredictable. They do not have paid sick days or other leave. They are penalized if they take a day off to go to the doctor or deal with a medical need. The railroads are so thinly staffed that they can’t allow employees any flexibility and need to have them on-call at all times to keep the trains running.

The safety of the workers and the communities the trains run through is being compromised; in the rush to get more done with fewer workers safety inspections are being neglected. Since 2012, the rates of accidents, equipment defects, and safety incidents have climbed; there have been more fatalities even though the number of miles trains are running has dropped roughly 40%.

The new proposed contract, which involves 12 unions representing 115,000 workers, would:

  • Allow workers to take days off for medical care without being penalized, but only one of those days would be paid. (Union leaders had initially asked for 15 days of paid sick leave.)
  • Increase pay by 24% over five years, going back to 2020 when the last contract expired, bringing the average workers’ pay to $110,000 in 2024.
  • Provide more worker-friendly work schedules.
  • Keep workers’ health care premiums at current levels.

Union members will vote over the next couple of weeks on whether to accept the proposed contract. [5]

The railroads are a textbook example of the extreme capitalism our current laws allow. Corporations generate very large profits for shareholders (including executives) while workers get squeezed hard. Amazon and Walmart are other examples that jump to mind. Fortunately, the railroad workers are in a union so they have some power to fight back.

[1]      Buck, M. J., 2/4/22, “How America’s supply chains got railroaded,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/how-americas-supply-chains-got-railroaded/)

[2]      Gardner, E., 9/13/22, “Rail strike by the numbers: Railroad profits are soaring at workers’ expense,” More Perfect Union (https://perfectunion.us/rail-profits-soaring-at-workers-expense/)

[3]      Buck, M. J., 2/4/22, see above

[4]      Stancil, K., 9/19/22, “While fighting workers, railroads made over $10 billion in stock buybacks,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/09/19/while-fighting-workers-railroads-made-over-10-billion-stock-buybacks)

[5]      Gurley, L. K., & Stein, J., 9/15/22, “Biden scores deal on rail strike, but worker discontent emerges,” The Washington Post



Comments and discussion are encouraged

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s