Reported by Mel Buer for The Real News.
Before these past two years, if you were polling passersby on the street, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone ready to admit that they were seriously concerned about the supply chain. You’d be hard pressed, for that matter, to find many who could describe what the supply chain actually is (present company included). That is certainly not the case today. From shortages—and correspondingly high costs—of groceries and consumer goods like baby formula and sunflower oil to medical devices, “supply chain issues” have become a pronounced source of anxiety and frustration for consumers, workers, businesses, and politicians alike.
“The supply chain is in chaos,” Will Knight wrote for WIRED in late March, “and it’s getting worse.” Unsurprisingly, however, the pain resulting from that chaos—like most things in this world—is not evenly distributed. As the economy contracts, inflation continues to skyrocket, and Wall Street tucks tail and runs, everyday workers are the ones left holding the bag.
There are other ways that the people working somewhere along the supply chain have been—and are being—crushed, thus hurting the supply chain itself, and what’s happening to freight railroaders in the US today is a perfect example of that.
The supply chain is a lot like the cardiovascular system of global commerce, a vast pulsing web of innumerable veins, arteries, and capillaries connecting points of extraction, production, and trade to points of sale around the world. Moving through that web at any given time is a dizzying menagerie of trains, trucks, ships, and planes transporting raw materials and finished goods.
Much like with the human body itself, the sheer logistics keeping such a complex system moving seamlessly are mind boggling, and when blockages and breakdowns occur at any point, the rest of the system is affected. Each prong and node of the supply chain infrastructure, and every individual process of transporting cargo units—containers coming and going at the ports, freight loaded onto trucks and trains—must work in tandem with one another to prevent disruptions. If movement at one node slows down, it starts a chain reaction across the entire system, and it becomes increasingly more difficult to right the ship (sometimes literally) when things begin to break down.
And things have been breaking down. The supply chain, Knight continues, “is too complex, interconnected, and fragile to be made completely immune to shocks, especially ones as seismic as a global pandemic or a major war.” Between the war in Ukraine, two-plus years of a deadly pandemic, extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change, a “trade war” between the US and China, and other larger-than-life factors, the supply chain has experienced a series of shocks that have experts sounding the alarm and businesses lamenting the seemingly unavoidable spikes in the cost of goods, which have been passed on to consumers.
Shipping containers sit in the BNSF Railway intermodal facility on July 28, 2021, in Cicero, Illinois. Strong consumer demand, coupled with an altered workforce caused by the global pandemic, has caused bottlenecks at shipping centers across the the country and has contributed to a shortage of goods as retailers and manufacturers scramble to replenish their inventories. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.
While these massive geopolitical and environmental events have intuitively served as a sort of taken-for-granted, catch-all explanation for supply chain disruptions and rising costs, they have also conveniently obscured another, sorely under-acknowledged cause of our collective supply chain woes: corporate greed. The fact that corporations have been raking in record profits while simultaneously jacking up prices on everyone (and shareholders have been bragging about it on quarterly earnings calls) certainly has more consumers catching the stench of something rotten beneath the prevailing narrative about inflation and supply chain issues. But corporate extortion via price gouging is not the only issue here.
To grasp just how deep the rot goes, it’s crucial to remember what is perhaps the most frequently (and willfully) forgotten fact about the supply chain: Even though those colorful logistics maps are dazzling to the eye, they also make the whole system seem more like a mechanical process of moving things, but at the ground floor of this system—every single part of it—are people, flesh-and-blood human beings making everything move. When we say that COVID-19 affected the supply chain, what we’re actually talking about in most cases is the people whose labor keeps the supply chain moving in some way, the people driving the trucks and trains, the people loading and steering ships at the ports, but also the farmers and farmworkers and miners and loggers putting out product to be moved, the packers and processors, and so on. What we’re talkin about is a whole lot of those people getting sick, even dying. But there are other ways that the people working somewhere along the supply chain have been—and are being—crushed, thus hurting the supply chain itself, and what’s happening to freight railroaders in the US today is a perfect example of that.
Again, the system shocks mentioned above—war and a raging pandemic among them—have provided a ready-made culprit for delays and disruptions all along the US supply chain. Missing from the equation, though, are the rail carriers themselves: the billionaires who own them and the overpaid CEOs who run them. Lest we forget, BNSF Railway and Union Pacific made billions in profit in 2021. But the cost of those profits, according to railroad workers and their advocates, has been incalculable. Profit-motivated, “cost-cutting” decisions made by those at the top of the corporate hierarchy have ground the hardworking operators, engineers, and others working along the railroad into dust. Such destructive decisions, as retired railroad engineer, union member, and former Iowa state legislative representative Jeff Kurtz puts it, are the real supply chain crisis. Because companies like BNSF and Union Pacific have pushed railroad workers—and, thus, the railroads—to the breaking point in their quest for greater profits, “trains are sitting still, people are quitting in record numbers… people don’t want to hire out on the railroad [anymore] because they’re not going to give their life away… I don’t blame them.”
In mid-May, for The Real News, I went to Fort Madison, Iowa, to attend a solidarity rally held by former railroaders, labor leaders, and their families.
While these massive geopolitical and environmental events have intuitively served as a sort of taken-for-granted, catch-all explanation for supply chain disruptions and rising costs, they have also conveniently obscured another, sorely under-acknowledged cause of our collective supply chain woes: corporate greed.
Fort Madison is a quiet town of around 10,000 people nestled up against the Mississippi River along the Iowa-Illinois border. To reach Fort Madison, you have to ditch the main interstate in Des Moines and drive for another few hours southeast on Highway 34—or take the early morning Amtrak to the station sitting right in the heart of downtown. The town serves as the only Iowa stop along Amtrak’s Southwest Chief route, connecting Los Angeles and Chicago by 1,744 miles of rail line owned and serviced by BNSF. On May 15, this lone commuter outpost served as a critical site for railroaders to gather and express outrage and concern over BNSF’s disastrous “Hi-Viz” attendance policy, which they see as the latest example of the industry’s self-destructive, runaway corporate greed.
BNSF’s Hi-Viz attendance policy was introduced earlier this year. Railroad workers opposed its implementation so fiercely that the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD), which together represent roughly 17,000 railroad workers, initiated steps to prepare for a strike that would have begun on Feb. 1. BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce and SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson called the Hi-Viz policy “the worst and most egregious attendance policy ever adopted by any rail carrier.” However, on Tuesday, Jan. 25, US District Court judge Mark Pittman, at the urging of BNSF, blocked the two unions from striking, saying that a strike would cause the rail company “substantial, immediate and irreparable harm.” Judge Pittman did not have much to say about the “substantial” and “irreparable harm” that the Hi-Viz policy would cause railroad workers and the supply chain, however, and the policy went into effect.
Now, six months later, concerns expressed by union officials, rank-and-file workers, and their families about the disastrous effects the policy would have on them and the industry have proven to be well founded.
The release from mediation includes an offer of arbitration between the rail unions and the rail carriers. As Frank N. Wilner reports at Railway Age, the unions are expected to reject the offer. “Because binding arbitration inherently means that rank and file union members will not have the option to vote on their contract—which is their constitutionally mandated right—rail labor will reject the offer of binding arbitration,” Greg Regan, President of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, said in a June 14 statement on behalf of TTD’s 37 affiliated unions, including all of rail labor.
Read more here.