Usually we spend our time on this podcast talking about our for-profit healthcare system and why we need to make healthcare a public good, but in this episode we’re taking a detour into another privatized American system that should be public: our railroads! Just like in US healthcare, private companies are falling asleep at the switch on managing our railroads, and just like in the healthcare system, the failure of big corporations is costing money and lives.
Today, we’re joined by Michael Paul Lindsey (who goes by Paul, or Railroad Refugee on Tiktok) a locomotive engineer for 17 years. Paul is a Steering Committee member of Railroad Workers United, a huge inter-union labor caucus of railroad workers from across the country that is fighting both for Medicare for All and for making our country’s railroads public. We’re going to talk about the parallels between these two fights, why railroad workers support Medicare for All, and why we think everyone who’s passionate about Medicare for All should also get excited about establishing public railways in this country!
RWU has been a supporter of Medicare for All for some time because railroad workers have so much trouble keeping decent healthcare while the rail companies try to gut benefits and use healthcare as a bargaining tactic against workers. Like other corporations, railroads use the increasing cost of healthcare benefits to cut into the other pay and benefits earned by railroad workers. They consistently shift more of the cost onto the workers, while claiming the benefits are so rich they can’t also provide workers with paid sick time or better time off benefits.
Railroad workers, like so many other Americans, are locked into their jobs because they need the health insurance. In countries with a national health plan, workers have the basic economic freedom to leave their job if they don’t like it, without worrying about healthcare. Those workers have better negotiating power because the employer can’t hold healthcare over their heads. But in the U.S. railroad companies – and most large corporations – have more control over their employees because their families depend on employer-provided healthcare.
Most Americans aren’t very aware of railroads and commercial rail. But commercial rail is integral to the entire modern economy. A recent example in California illustrates rail’s reach into our economy: Union Pacific wasn’t delivering sufficient amounts of grain to Foster Farms, one of the largest chicken and turkey producers in the country. Foster Farms was days away from having to slaughter millions of chickens. Union Pacific blamed congestion, and shortages of locomotives and workers for the delays, while in fact they had cut their own resources relentlessly to buyback stock shares. Only after the Feds ordered Union Pacific to increase grain shipments was the problem resolved.
So while many other industries depend on rail for their very existence, the railroad companies’ focus on stock buybacks reduces their capacity to deliver goods, potentially wiping out entire industries. , reducing the capacity of railroads to deliver goods. Ultimately, taxpayers make up the difference because the cargo has to be delivered by trucks on the publicly subsidized highway system.
It’s important to know more about an industry with so much control over the economy. For most of American history railroads have been privately owned. However when there wasn’t enough capacity to support the war effort during the First World War, the U.S. temporarily nationalized the railroads, investing heavily in upgrades at taxpayers’ expense. That was all returned to private ownership after the war.
Since the 1950s and 1960s railroads began to merge and consolidate, at the same time the U.S. government began investing in the competition, with subsidized interstate highways and airports. In the 1970s railroads were facing tough financial times; in 1971 the federal government relieved the railroads of their obligation to provide less profitable passenger rail service, creating the quasi-governmental corporation Amtrak. Commercial rail mergers continued to form giant super corporations that control the rails and nearly eliminate competition. With that dominant market power, they deprioritize Amtrak’s access to the rails.
A horrifying consequence of this consolidation of power was the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio in February of this year. It ended up being an incredibly expensive, huge environmental disaster, leaking toxic chemicals into the soil and water and killing tens of thousands of pets and wild animals – and, of course, we’re still waiting to see what the long-term effects will be for public health.
The investigation into the derailment showed that safety alarms were ignored in order to keep the trains running. The disaster also highlighted the fact that there is no federal regulation of safety detectors; some states are trying to impose state standards, which the railroad corporation are threatening to sue to stop, citing lack of jurisdiction. That lack of oversight and out of control drive for profit sounds familiar to healthcare advocates, right?
The railway system is almost a direct analogy to our healthcare system – it should be a public utility functioning for the public good, but it’s been hijacked by a small group of big corporations who are only looking out for short-term profits. Of course, when we look at that situation in healthcare, we say the best solution is to take the profit motive out of the equation altogether and establish a publicly funded, publicly accountable Medicare for All system.
RWU has come up with a similar solution to the railroad problem. They’re proposing a well-maintained, publicly-owned rail system that’s open-access for all, opposed to the current system that allows duopolies to control the tracks, prevent competition, and stifle their customers.
Paul often has to explain the complicated problem of corporate control to workers who might be suspicious about the government. If you’re going to preach capitalism and market-based solutions, there has to be the opportunity to fail. You can’t be too big to fail, receive preferential loans from the Fed, and receive bailouts when you should go bankrupt, The railroads don’t have competition and don’t have the opportunity to fail, to the detriment to workers, customers, communities and the environment.
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