Monday, July 4, 2011

The Unions and High-Speed Rail

There's an article about the "Teamsters" Union Convention in Las Vegas recently.

Most of the article is about Union issues as such, and we won't bother with that.  But, here is the headline and an excerpt that caught my attention:  
Teamsters Resolve to Ensure High-Speed Rail Jobs are Union Jobs
Fred Simpson, President of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, rebuked politicians such as Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who wants to privatize Amtrak. Simpson said Mica's latest proposal "would give away America's most successful rail corridor to his political friends, and provide them with massive government subsidies."
"There is no tax savings to the American people in this scheme," Simpson said. "It will not produce improved passenger service, good paying jobs, or economic growth.  But it will transfer our tax dollars into the pockets of Wall Street speculators and corporate profiteers."

Before going on, and in the interests of full disclosure, I'm not only a Democrat, but a Union supporter. 

Nonetheless, speaking for myself, how Simpson's case that privatization will fail to: improve passenger service, create good paying jobs, and stimulate economic growth, whereas keeping Amtrak on the government subsidy dole, will succeed in those outcomes, is a puzzle to me.  The tax dollars he talks about are now being transferred to the Amtrak bureaucracy.  Why is that worse than "Wall Street Fat Cats?" Both are inappropriate.

Amtrak is a poorly managed passenger rail organization, half-public, half-private.  Is is far from successful by any measure. Even it's increased ridership numbers, taken in context, are underwhelming.  The number of Amtrak riders, annually around 28 million, is a miniscule fraction of the total transit ridership in the US.  The taxpayer comes up with over $400 dollars in tax-based subsidies for every ticket sold for the train from New Orleans to Los Angeles. Why is that a good thing, Mr. Simpson? 

"Amtrak has been providing second-rate train service for almost four decades, while consuming almost $40 billion in federal subsidies. The system has never earned a profit and most of its routes lose money. Amtrak's on-time record is very poor, and the system as a whole only accounts for 0.1 percent of America's passenger travel."

". . .the 2009 level amounts to a less than a 1 percent share of the market for passenger travel in the United States."

"The Sunset Limited, which runs from New Orleans to Los Angeles, lost an astounding $462 per passenger."

These comments are not a defense of John Mica's attempts at taking the NEC segment of Amtrak, which ostensibly breaks even, and privatizing it.  But, the Union's contention that government projects are good for Labor, is also a highly questionable premise.  And that this is sufficient reason to keep Amtrak a losing public utility is just wrong. It is wrong of the Unions to pit private sector against public sector.  Both should employ union labor; both should negotiate with the unions to protect the basic needs of the workers they employ. 

Unions, apparently, prefer government employment rather than private sector employment, even though we are told that unless the private sector begins hiring, our economy won't ever recover.  Furthermore, there are very few construction jobs that aren't unionized.  So, whether the contractor contracts with the government or the private sector, the unions should be able to negotiate employment conditions. 

Indeed, there is a powerful anti-union movement afoot in the US and several state governments have already banished collective bargaining, and I oppose those government efforts at union oppression.  

My problem with all this is that the union support for HSR has nothing to do with the transportation needs of the states and the country as a whole. It has nothing to do with high-speed rail as such. Their concerns (and rightfully so) are about jobs.  The assumption here is that even if HSR is a terrible idea, the fact that federal funds are being made available for construction jobs is a good thing, and that the means therefore justify the ends. And that, I totally disagree with.

I wish it were that simple.

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