Still on the edge after pandemic, a rail strike could spell disaster for farmers

Another disruption to the supply chain could decimate farmers and force them to pass off costs to consumers
Posted at 5:23 PM, Sep 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-14 20:54:49-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A looming rail worker strike is causing worry for consumers and business owners, both still reeling from pandemic-related interruptions to the supply chain.

Two of the nation’s biggest freight unions, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, are poised for a picket over scheduling and pay. On Wednesday, the IAM rejected a deal with the National Carrier’s Conference Committee (NCCC) and authorized a strike, but said they would hold off on a work stoppage until September 29 so other unions holding out could finish their negotiations.

Amtrak also halted some of its major long-hail passenger lines Wednesday.

If a strike by any of the unions were to materialize, the effects on the economy would be swift.

“If we have a strike and it lasts more than a week, then the effects start to be real and they start to compound,” said Dr. Paul Isely, an associate dean at Grand Valley State University’s Seidman College of Business. “There’s still a lot of pressure on the supply chain.”

Dr. Isely noted that roughly a third of all American goods travel to their destination, at some point, by train. The auto, homebuilding and fuel industries rely especially heavily on railways – moving components to build houses, cars and refineries in, and finished products out by freight. Agriculture also leans greatly on rail travel.

“Everything, I mean literally it’s all by freight,” said Todd Quick, owner of Peach Ridge Farms in the Grand Rapids area, “and now we’re going to have a rail strike?”

Quick says over the past year, his costs have skyrocketed 80%. It now costs him more to fuel his equipment, and he can’t find or get seemingly insignificant but absolutely crucial materials like plastic bags and boxes to store his produce. Though he doesn’t use it at Peach Ridge, fertilizer has also skyrocketed because of how difficult it is to get.

What Quick doesn’t want to do, is pass the costs on to his consumers and vendors.

“I don’t want it to affect consumers. I want people to keep buying my food,” he said. “It isn’t the big costs that add up, it’s the little stuff. I mean, on a farm, that’s pretty critical stuff.”

Dr. Isely said the rail industry is so important to the American economy. It’s one of a few industries subject to intervention from the federal government during strikes. President Joe Biden was in Michigan Wednesday visiting an auto plant, but didn’t say whether the government would step in to intervene in the negotiations.

“This has nothing to do with politics anymore. This is real. It’s not a joke,” said Quick. “You can’t move [products], that’s the truth. What are you going to do? it’s not a joke.”