Rail Strike: Why The Railroads Won’t Give In on Paid Leave

All of which invites the question: Why do these rail barons hate paid leave so much? Why would a company have no problem handing out 24 percent raises, $1,000 bonuses, and caps on health-care premiums but draw the line on providing a benefit as standard and ubiquitous throughout modern industry as paid sick days?

The answer, in short, is “P.S.R.” — or precision-scheduled railroading.

P.S.R. is an operational strategy that aims to minimize the ratio between railroads’ operating costs and their revenues through various cost-cutting and (ostensibly) efficiency-increasing measures. The basic idea is to transport more freight using fewer workers and railcars.

The second problem with P.S.R., from the shippers’ standpoint, is that its scheduling is less precise than advertised. Eliminating spare labor or train cars may render railroads more efficient mechanisms for translating investment into profits. But such fragile systems aren’t necessarily efficient for bringing freight from one place to another, especially in a world where natural disasters and public-health crises exist.

In early 2021, when the acute phase of the COVID pandemic ended and economic demand spiked, freight carriers’ operations were derailed by their own “efficiencies.” For a week last July, Union Pacific had to suspend service between Chicago and Los Angeles while it reopened shuttered rail ramps and reconfigured operations in order to keep pace with rising orders. Similar disruptions afflicted the other major carriers, as The American Prospect details.

Rail Strike: Why The Railroads Won’t Give In on Paid Leave

This is another instance where myopic 2000s micro efficiency actually makes the whole system less efficient. The only reason for PSR is maximum extraction of value. If you do that at the lower level of a complex system, there is no resiliency at upper levels, and the system really isn’t efficient.

Rail workers deserve paid leave as human beings. It’s the ethical thing to do. It’s also the pragmatic thing to do if we want a functioning rail system going into the 2030s that can handle the system shocks from future pandemics and climate disasters. This itself is a climate story.

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