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Nationalize the Railroads
The distribution of key goods shouldn't dependent on an ability to profit.
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If there’s a silver lining to the Biden Administration’s very public decision to force a poor deal onto railroad workers, it’s that millions of Americans are seeing how the government works hand-in-glove with Capitalists to control the supposedly “free market” American economy.
With a few exceptions, the mainstream media coverage has been in the favor of railroad owners, framing the potential strike as workers attacking consumers. And though obviously biased (and untrue, in my opinion), this telling did make perfectly clear that Americans’ well-being is dependent upon the whims and wants of Capitalists.
Railroads deliver 30% of U.S. goods. They are a key mechanism of American society, enabling the distribution of coal, medicine, chemicals, consumer goods, and pretty much everything else that makes the country run. Were railroad owners to decide to stop the trains, which they could do anytime under current property laws, the country would grind to a halt.
This is an absurdity, one that should not plague civilized society. The health of our country should not be contingent on if Robber Barrons think it is in their financial interest to allow the distribution of key goods. In the run-up to the negotiation deadline, railroad companies began “soft lockouts,” slowing or stopping train routes to punish workers who were considering collective action. That meant Americans went without important goods just so some owners could stick it to their employees.
Instead of continuing to trust important infrastructure to those whose only motivation is profit, we should nationalize the railroads to be operated for the good of the workers, the public, and the entire American economy.
Below is a map of rail lines in the US by owner. As we can see, the rail network is a pair of duopolies, with Union Pacific and BNSF owning the West while CSX and Norfolk Southern own the East. The publicly owned Amtrak is sprinkled in, owning 3% of all rail lines.
Absent from our rail system is everything Capitalists praise about the “free market.” There’s little competition and even less choice. Whether you want to move goods east or west, you are subject to the demands of a two-headed cartel. And because no one is building new railroads, this will never change. (This is another example showing how Capitalism engages in undemocratic central planning. You can read more about that here.)
The only solution is to bring these four rail companies under public control.
Here are the total values and revenues for the four major rail lines. Their total value currently sits around $342.88 billion.
That is a significant amount of money, over 4x what it would cost to nationalize the majority of the airline industry. But it’s also less than 40% of the planned 2023 Defense budget, making it well within the government’s financial means to purchase and consolidate all four of these companies.
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Once consolidated, trains would run just as they had before, though now legally part of Amtrak. Goods would be delivered as normal, and they’d be cheaper for consumers as there’s no owner siphoning off a profit. Railroad workers, who have been mistreated, exploited, and killed since the first tracks were laid upon American dirt, would become public-sector employees. Labor disputes are inevitable, as they are with teachers, sanitation workers, firefighters, and other public employees, but a democratic government is far more likely to negotiate with unions in good faith than Warren Buffett. (Buffett owns BNSF.) And while governments of all levels are far from perfect in dealing with their unionized employees, it’s a certainty railroad workers would have better conditions if they were employed by the people, not billionaires.
A lot would have to change for this to become reality. As we’ve seen from Biden’s decision to side with the bosses, the U.S. government is an agent of the Capitalist class. They act as strongmen for their donors, literally forcing workers into unsafe labor for private profit.
The recent turmoil all stems from the fact that key economic assets, vital to the continuation of the United States, rest in the hands of the few and not the many.
This is no way for a civilized society to conduct itself. The fulfillment of a need — the necessity of American people to get 30% of their goods — should not rely on whether a few owners believe delivering those goods will net them a profit.
Only the nationalization of the largest railroads under a fully democratic government can avoid the pitfalls and shortcomings so present in the American rail network, with respect to both consumption and labor.
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