“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” has been sung by railroad workers since 1894. But in 2020, the American folk song’s refrain could prove prophetic — and perhaps serve as sage advice — for the unemployed or those looking to fine-tune their exit strategy from their current job: Get to work. On the railroad.
Millennials know full well by now how tough it is to make it in today’s economy. You might be putting half your paycheck to rent. Perhaps you’re wondering whether you’ll be able to pay off a substantial portion of your crushing student debt by the time you marry (provided the world hasn’t burned to a crisp before then). And you’re probably frustrated by the difficulty of finding a primary care physician who not only takes your insurance but also talks to you for more than 15 minutes. Don’t get sick anytime soon!
Younger generations have been taught to view “dream jobs” as those that reflect passion and fulfillment, not just a 9-to-5. Yet even if the job itself is not your dream, sometimes it’s the benefits that come with the job which could make it one. And those benefits — like health insurance and a pension — are far more likely to come with union jobs. But with the levels of unionization falling across the board in America, benefits can be hard to come by. Unless, that is, you work on the railroad.
Eighty-one percent of subway, streetcar and other rail workers were covered by a union agreement in 2018 — up 44 percent from 2009.
The subway, rail and train industry has the highest proportion of unionized workers of any tracked profession — 77 percent are members, while 81 percent are covered by union agreements, according to 2018 data from the Current Population Survey. That’s more than postal workers, 73 percent of whom are unionized. While union membership in the United States has dropped by roughly half, according to Pew Research Center, unionized workers still outearn their nonunionized counterparts by approximately 22 percent.
In 2018, only 10.5 percent of American workers were union members, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that’s not due to lack of interest: Anti-worker action by employers has made it increasingly difficult for workers to organize, argues Kayla Blado, president of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union. Roughly half of nonunionized workers join a union if given the opportunity, 2017 data from MIT researchers and the National Opinion Research Corp. revealed.
Being in a union gives workers, especially marginalized ones, a voice to bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions, says Blado. The wages of female workers in unions were 23 percent more than those not in a union, Blado notes, while hourly wages for Black union workers are roughly 15 percent higher than those of their nonunionized counterparts.
The rail industry was one of the first to unionize, dating back to the late 19th century, says Brian Wivell, a political organizer with the Auto Transit Union. Wivell attributes the uptick in railway union membership to “the same things that drive workers to unionize throughout history economic downturns.” Growth has come in part from expanding public transit systems and organizing private sector transportation companies nationwide to bring employees to parity with public transit workers, Wivell says.
No doubt, the 2020 rail industry isn’t exactly in prime fighting shape: U.S. rail carloads decreased roughly 5 percent in 2019, according to data from the Association of American Railroads. Employment is projected to dip 2 percent from 2018 to 2028, compared with the 5 percent average growth rate for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Surviving typically means cutting costs — and often cutting jobs — and the industry’s health is subject to volatility generated by trade disputes. But public transit, despite declining ridership, remains better insulated than some other industries, because funding comes from local, state and national governments, Wivell explains. Meanwhile, untenable traffic congestion is forcing cities to consider large-scale public transit expansions.
Expanding transit — and how, exactly, to do so — is a project more and more cities are being forced to confront in the face of accelerating climate change and outdated infrastructure systems that exacerbate housing crises. Cities including New York, San Francisco, Madrid and Barcelona are experimenting with car-free zones, a move that has stoked heated opinions on both sides. New York City closed 14th Street and became the first U.S. city to approve congestion pricing in 2019 to mitigate traffic and to raise money to update its subway (it will take effect in 2021). And a slew of apps have cropped up to incentivize commuters to make greener choices.
“Public transit has to expand dramatically if we’re going to have any hope of mitigating the worst effects of climate change,” says Wivell. “Any serious plan to fight climate change is going to lead to a massive increase in unionized transit workers to meet demand.” Of course, there’s no guarantee that public transit will fill a car-free gap — alternative modes of transit, like electric bikes and scooters, could instead. And it’s not breaking news that in California Uber and Lyft remain at odds, to put it diplomatically, with labor unions.
Even so, it’s not difficult to imagine a future in which union jobs are tied to sustainable transit — a scenario accompanied by a clock that’s ticking with ever more urgency as the planet warms. Perhaps those looking for a stable future should hop on the train.