Sep 15, 2022 - Podcasts

A major rail strike is averted for now

A major rail strike has been averted. That’s the early morning statement from the White House. Here’s why this matters: Virtually everything in our country -- from food to gas and retail goods -- relies on the nearly 140,000-mile rail network that expands across 49 states. But the tens of thousands of freight workers and their unions appear to have reached an agreement.

  • And, Minnesota nurses stage a the three-day walk out.
  • Plus, Latinos are reclaiming the accent mark as a show of cultural pride.

Guests: Axios' Emily Peck, Torey Van Oot and Astrid Galván.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Robin Linn, Fonda Mwangi, Alex Sugiura, and Ben O'Brien. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

Editor's note: The story has been updated with breaking news on the tentative agreement.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Thursday, September 15. I’m Niala Boodhoo. An 11th hour deal averts a railroad strike, but in Minnesota, nurses are already there.

NURSES [CHANTING]: We say nurses, you say power…nurses, power!

NIALA: Workers are fed up. That’s today’s one big thing.

An early-morning deal averts a rail strike

A major rail strike has been averted. That's the early morning statement from the white house. Here's why this matters virtually everything in our country, from food to gas and retail goods relies on a nearly 140,000 mile rail network that expands across 49 states. But the tens of thousands of freight workers and their unions appear to have reached an agreement. Axios' Emily pack has the breaking news. Good morning, Emily.

EMILY PECK: Hey, Niala.

NIALA: Emily first, what's the background here?

EMILY: So the rail workers and the unions have been trying to hammer out this contract since 2019, they took a little break for the pandemic as we all did. And then they were right back at it in 2021. And again, until last night they were trying to close this deal.

NIALA: How much damage could this have caused?

EMILY: Oh, my gosh, Niala. This would've been really economically devastating, especially for the United States in 2022, when we're just trying to combat the inflation that we're all struggling with and the supply chain crisis, the rails are absolutely critical to the nation's supply chains.

NIALA: Emily, what role did the White House play in all of this?

EMILY: The White House was very closely involved. They were there last night. Um, a white house official said we just ordered dinner. This is still going on. We're still at the table. Um, labor secretary, Marty Walsh was in DC yesterday at the table, leading the talks. Biden was on the phone with union leaders and rail companies as well, trying to hammer out a deal.

NIALA: What was the sticking point?

EMILY: The sticking point Niala was not really pay, but working conditions on the rails. Um, there were issues regarding sick pay and time off, workers complained about being on call for weeks at a time, for being penalized for taking time off for a sick day or to go to a funeral, things like that.

NIALA: Emily you and I have talked about this year and what's happened with unions and the role of organized labor in this country. What does this moment say to you about where we're at with unions in America?

EMILY: I'm still looking at the deal it's tentative and it still has to be voted on. So let's get all that said. but this says to me that the Biden administration for one passed its test, everyone was kind of watching to see if the so-called pro-labor white house could really. Land this plane because they though they're on the side of labor, ostensibly, they're also on the side of functioning economy, supply chain and fighting the inflation. So looks like for now, and it's tentative, that that test has been passed. Bottom line what this shows once again is how the pandemic really stirred things up for workers at all levels in this country and how fed up they were. And in this case really pushed the economy, the White House, everybody to the brink.

NIALA: Axios markets. Emily Peck. Thank you.

EMILY: You're welcome. Bye Niala.

NIALA: In a moment, why nurses in Minnesota are already on strike.

Minnesota nurses stage a the three-day walk out

Welcome back to Axios Today!

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

We were just talking to Emily Peck about how angry some railroad workers are and they’re not alone.

In Minnesota, about 15,000 nurses have been on a three-day strike to call attention to their working conditions. They say they’re fighting for better pay and staffing, citing pandemic burnout and staff shortages.

MARY TURNER: We are the ones that are showing all the workers all across America how it is to fight and what it means to stand up for your contracts but not only that, stand up for the working people of America.

NIALA: That’s Mary Turner the president of the Minnesota nurses’ association speaking at a news conference yesterday. Axios Twin Cities reporter Torey Van Oot was there. Hi Torey!


NIALA: Torey, union leaders are saying this action is the largest private sector nurses strike in US history. So how extensive has this been?

TOREY: This was a really big action. I mean, this affected 15 hospitals, some of the largest hospitals in Minnesota and in the twin cities. And as you mentioned, 15,000 nurses walked off the job for three days, to protest these contract talks that have really gone nowhere. The strike ends this morning and both sides are expected to return to the bargaining table. The nurses union president was asked yesterday what happens, if they don't reach a deal and she hinted that round two could come and that could even include another strike.

NIALA: How did hospital systems respond to this three day action?

TOREY: Hospital systems had to scramble to hire temporary nurses. And this was really costly. It cost them, one figure I saw was tens of millions of dollars to find nurses to backfill these roles. You know, they say they can't afford the proposals that the nurses have asked for. They can't afford the level of pay raises. You know, the average nurse in Minnesota makes about $80,000 a year. The hospitals say that is fairly high compensation compared to the national averages. On the other hand, you know, the nurses point out that hospitals were able to pay a lot more for these temporary nurses who came in and, and backfill during this strike and that they want the hospitals to step up and, and increase their pay by about 30% over three years.

NIALA: Torey we watched the pandemic burnout of healthcare workers that happened over the past two years. What are working conditions like now?

TOREY: What the nurses wanna call attention to is both their pay levels and the staffing levels at the hospital. So they say that they're burned out, overworked one nurse at a press conference this week just said every shift every day feels like they're short. And he described, you know, working a 16 hour overnight shift, going home for four hours and coming back and working another 12. He said he does that at least once a week and it's just not sustainable.

NIALA: Minnesota has been seeing lots of labor movement activity this year from a teacher strike in March to unionization at Starbucks and Trader Joe's. What's behind all of this?

TOREY: Yes, like a lot of parts of the country, we've seen this growing labor movement here in the Twin Cities. I spoke to one labor economist and what he said was that conditions have just been really favorable for forming a union. And favorable for workers recently, people are frustrated in all sorts of industries and burned out after the pandemic and they feel they have the leverage to seek better pay and working conditions through the bargaining table.

NIALA: Torey Van Oot is an Axios local reporter based in the twin cities. Thanks Torey.

TOREY: Thanks Niala.

Latinos are reclaiming the accent mark as a show of cultural pride

NIALA: One final story before we go. The accent mark is making a comeback. After decades of pressure on Latinos to assimilate and remove accent marks in their names, more and more Latinos are bringing them back as a show of cultural pride. Axios’ Latino editor Astrid Galván has more.

ASTRID GALVÁN: There's this whole historical backdrop to why Latinos in the US, myself included, hadn't traditionally used accent marks.Part of that is the technology like keyboards and computer systems that weren't built to support non-English symbols. But also there are generations before us who were punished for speaking Spanish. They were taught to assimilate. And so the accent marks just kind of went away for a lot of Latinos here. But there's now a lot of people who are sort of reclaiming the accent mark or the eñe, saying that this is who they are and insisting that people both spell and pronounce their names the way they are meant to be. And technology is catching up as well. Most new phones, for example, allow you to use accented letters pretty easily.

NIALA: That's Axios Latino editor, Astrid Galván.

That’s it for us today!

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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