A Freight Knot | Crooked Media
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September 14, 2022
What A Day
A Freight Knot

In This Episode

  • Tens of thousands of railroad workers could go on strike Friday, even as top-level negotiators and Labor Department officials met in Washington yesterday to try to reach a deal to avert it. Max Alvarez, editor-in-chief of the non-profit Real News Network, joins us to discuss what’s at stake, and why the dispute has reached this point.
  • And in headlines: soldiers clashed at the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, R. Kelly was convicted of multiple child pornography charges, and West Virginia lawmakers passed one of the strictest abortion bans in the country.


Show Notes:



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For a transcript of this episode, please visit crooked.com/whataday




Priyanka Aribindi: It’s Thursday, September 15th. I’m Priyanka Aribindi. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And I’m Tre’vell Anderson. And this is What A Day where we thought we were waiting in line to pay our respects to the Queen’s coffin. But it turns out it was the line for the fall drop by Supreme. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Listen. Here in L.A., if there is a long line, you just get in it. You don’t really ask questions. Who knows what’s going to be at the end of it? [laughter] But I’m sure it’s something good. That’s why you do it. [music break] On today’s show, California is going after Amazon for allegedly undercutting its competitors. Plus, the MyPillow guy says that the FBI took his phone at a fast food drive thru. 


Tre’vell Anderson: He’s got to be very upset that we’re calling him the MyPillow guy, but we’ll get to that later. But first, we told you earlier this week that the Biden administration is trying to head off what could be one of the most high stakes work stoppages in decades. Tens of thousands of railroad workers could strike as early as Friday, even as top level negotiators and Labor Department officials met in Washington yesterday to try to reach a deal. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, a freight shutdown would have devastating consequences for the economy. By one estimate, the strike could cost as much as $2 billion dollars a day. And since nearly a third of all goods in the U.S. are sent by rail, including fuel and food, it threatens to disrupt the nation’s already fragile supply chain. 


Tre’vell Anderson: To learn more about what’s at stake, we spoke to Max Alvarez. He’s the editor in chief of the nonprofit Real News Network and has been following this story for months. We asked him why these workers are now saying enough is enough, even in the face of critics who say they’re going to worsen the supply crisis. 


Max Alvarez: What I would stress to people is that the railroad workers right now are the ones standing up to save the supply chain from the corporate greed that has completely destroyed the country’s freight rail industry. I started reporting on this issue back in January when I learned that 17,000 Union railroad workers at one of the major class one freight railroads, these workers were actually blocked from striking over a draconian attendance policy that was being implemented at BNSF Railway. A U.S. district court judge blocked the workers from striking, saying a strike would do irreparable damage to the supply chain. And now, eight months later, what workers are telling me is that the supply chain has been irreparably damaged because this attendance policy was allowed to go into effect. It does not treat workers like human beings. It essentially forces workers to be on call 24/7. Any railroad conductor or engineer will tell you that they don’t have a set schedule really, makes it impossible for them to spend time with their family. But also they don’t have sick days. They get sick with COVID, they get penalized because of this policy. So no one’s happy except the shareholders who are you know raking in record profits, and they are doing it on the backs of workers who are saying that uh they can’t keep up with this. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. To help us understand just a little bit more about how we got here. You know, when was the last rail strike in the U.S. and then what impact did that have on the country, the supply chain, all of it. 


Max Alvarez: So the last um national rail strike was in the early nineties, I believe it was 1992. But in our lifetimes, this is the first time that we’ve actually really reached this pivotal point. And it takes a lot of steps to get to this point. You know, labor relations on the railroads are not governed by the National Labor Relations Act like most other jobs are. And that’s because this country saw a century ago how much the economy could be brought to its knees when workers on the railroad strike. They struck in 1922. There was the great Pullman strike in 1894 and there was the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. So after seeing how much power workers had over the supply chain and over commerce and the economy, you know, we came up with the Railway Labor Act and when I say we, I mean politicians and the business class to essentially prevent a strike from happening on the country’s railroads. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. 


Max Alvarez: That’s why the contract negotiations that have been going on have been so drawn out. That’s why there all these extra steps. That’s why President Biden appointed a presidential emergency board to try to mediate between these two sides. So we’ve cleared all those and the last time that we did was in 1992. But that strike was immediately shut down by Congress and President Bush at the time. They forced a back to work order and totally shafted workers. And that’s what people are worried is going to happen right now and that the rail carriers are going to essentially get everything that they want. And worker’s greatest power, their power to withhold their labor is going to be stripped from them by Congress. 


Priyanka Aribindi: How did the demands of the rail workers in the nineties compare to the ones that rail workers now have? Are there are similarities between the two? 


Max Alvarez: The things that workers were screaming about then are in fact like the same trends that have led us to the crisis today. In 1980, there were around 40 class one freight railroads and now they’re just seven, which again has made it possible for these seven companies to have an oligopoly over the entire rail system. And they can charge whatever the heck they want. They can push whatever draconian labor policies on their workers that they want because where else is anyone going to go? 


Tre’vell Anderson: So now if these workers do go through with the strike. It will have a huge impact on millions of Americans. We’re already seeing that Amtrak has cancelled all of its long distance train rides to prepare for this possibility. From your vantage point, what are some of the ways in which the general public might be affected by a walkout like this? 


Max Alvarez: The consequences will be seismic. The nation’s supply chain intimately depends on the railroads. Grain will rot in silos, right? The price of fuel will go up because the raw materials will not be getting to the refineries in time. Livestock will be euthanized because they can’t get fed or moved. Right. There are all kinds of hazardous materials moving on the country’s railroads every minute of every single day, including deadly substances like concentrated chlorine, so on and so forth. But again, what I would say is that if people are worried about the effects that this will have on them in the supply chain, you are already feeling those effects. You’ve been feeling those effects because of what these class one companies have been doing to the railroads. And this has huge impacts on small businesses that rely on freight rail services that can’t get their product out there. This hurts bigger corporations. This hurts the agricultural sector hugely because they need to move their product on the railroads and stuff like that. So the crisis is already here. We’ve just been sleeping while it’s happening all around us and accepting it. We’re only now waking up to it a few days before an actual strike. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, the stakes are alarmingly high, as you’ve been saying. And, you know, even the White House has gotten involved to try and avert this strike. You know, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is having emergency meetings with the rail unions and rail carriers to help them come to an agreement. And Senate Republicans now want Congress to step in to force both sides into an agreement. So is it unusual for the federal government to step in like this? Like I certainly can’t think of any other scenario, any other industry in which they would do that for. But from your perspective, is this unprecedented? 


Max Alvarez: It’s less well known, but the federal government has a history of strike breaking. I mentioned 1980. That, of course, was the year that Ronald Reagan was elected president and Reagan famously broke the air traffic controller strike in that year. And in a lot of ways, that was a signal to the business class everywhere in this country that it was officially open season on the labor movement. And that’s what you saw over the next two decades. You saw bosses getting way more aggressive with strike breaking and union busting. Firing workers on strike, replacing them permanently with scabs whenever they went on strike and union density began its precipitous fall to the low point that it’s at now where it’s barely hovering around 10%. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Last but not least, the question on everybody’s mind Do you think this strike is actually going to happen? 


Max Alvarez: I would not be surprised if it happened. Now what people watching and listening need to understand is that workers in this industry have been beaten down and disrespected and run into the ground for so long that this really does feel like the last stand. If they lose on this, so many workers have said, I’m quitting, I’m out. Like even folks who have been on the railroads for ten, twenty years are gone. It does feel like if they don’t fight back now, then all the problems that have been destroying the rail industry and the supply chain are only going to get worse and they’re going to have Congress’s blessing and the president’s blessing. So what incentive is there going to be for them to stop? If they do go on strike? But Congress has issued a back to work order. A strike would be illegal. It remains to be seen if workers are prepared to stand strong and say, we don’t care if it’s illegal, we’re going to fight for what’s right and we’re going to stay out on the picket line. That is possible. Some may stay out. Some may not. What I can tell you is that every worker that I’ve talked to throughout this year is fed up. They are pissed off. They do not want to accept the recommendations from Biden’s presidential emergency board. They do not want to accept those terms and they’re ready to fight. 


Priyanka Aribindi: We’ll keep you updated as we continue to learn more, but that is the latest for now. We’ll be back after some ads. 




Priyanka Aribindi: Let’s wrap up with some headlines. 


[sung] Headlines. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Soldiers clash at the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan this week, drawing international concern that a war could be brewing between the two nations. Fighting broke out on Tuesday, and since then, over 150 casualties have been reported on both sides, which makes this the deadliest surge in violence to erupt between the two countries since 2020. For context, Armenia and Azerbaijan are fighting over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh and have been for decades. The area is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but historically ethnic Armenians have lived there for generations and defended their right to call it home. The two countries trade blows from time to time over the issue, but this week’s violence has renewed fears of an all out war. Diplomatic efforts by the U.S., France and Russia are already underway to de-escalate tensions. 


Tre’vell Anderson: An update on the federal trial of R. Kelly in Chicago. A jury found the singer guilty yesterday on six out of the thirteen charges against him. Those charges included coercing minors into criminal sexual activity and producing child sexual abuse videos. And they could add years to Kelly’s 30 year sentence for other sex crimes. 


Priyanka Aribindi: On Tuesday, West Virginia lawmakers voted to one up all of the other GOP led states by passing one of the strictest abortion bans in the country. They passed a near-total ban at every stage of pregnancy except when the pregnant person’s life is in danger. Or in certain cases, of rape or incest. And even in those cases, the crime would have to be reported to law enforcement before an abortion is performed. The bill goes much further than the state’s current law that bans the procedure after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Any medical professional who performs an abortion could lose their license and face criminal charges. The bill now goes to the state’s Republican governor, Jim Justice, who signaled that he’ll sign it into law. 


Tre’vell Anderson: I just really hate that his last name is Justice because– 


Priyanka Aribindi: It’s awful. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Come on. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Absolutely not what’s happening here. 


Tre’vell Anderson: At all. Prosecutors in Baltimore filed a motion yesterday to give Adnan Syed the subject of the wildly popular podcast Serial a new trial. You may remember he was convicted for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, and has been in prison for over 20 years. But Syed has always maintained his innocence. And the 2014 podcast poked holes in the evidence that was used against him. His conviction had already been overturned once in 2018 after he was granted a new trial, but he was reinstated just a year later. The prosecutors this time around didn’t say whether they think Syed is innocent, but they did question the integrity of his original conviction. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Listen, that podcast, arguably the best podcast to have ever been made aside from What A Day. [laughing] Definitely poked the holes. I don’t remember very much from it, it’s been a long time since I listened, but I do remember at the end of it being like, huh that man should not be in prison. They’re on the right track here. A prime day to prosecute antitrust violations yesterday as the state of California sued Amazon. California Attorney General Rob Bonta accused the retail giant of using its contracts with third party sellers to inflate prices and stifle business for their smaller competitors. This is the biggest legal challenge that Amazon has ever faced in the U.S. and Bonta is seeking damages for the harm that the company has caused to California’s economy for over a decade. Amazon has yet to comment on the complaint. 


Tre’vell Anderson: This is what I love to see, hold these major, major companies accountable for their foolishness. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Do it. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Please, and thank you. Some very real news out of the world of very fake money. By the time you’re hearing this, Ethereum, the second largest blockchain platform behind Bitcoin, will have finished its long awaited upgrade. It’s a little complicated, but it boils down to this. The merge, as it’s being called, will shift Ethereum away from what’s known as a proof of work model. That’s essentially the process that keeps transactions on the network secure and functional, but it’s also insanely energy intensive. Running the whole blockchain uses the same amount of electricity as the entire country of Belgium each year. The system where we [?] to a proof of stake model instead, which is expected to slash energy consumption by over 99%. If all goes according to plan, and a lot of experts say it will. That would be great news for the planet, but it’s unclear whether it’ll ultimately help or hurt cryptocurrency prices. As always, the best strategy is to just follow the investment advice of whichever man in your office is the loudest, because they obviously know what they’re talking about. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Obviously. Pillow tycoon Mike Lindell knows the secret to a good night’s rest. No phone before bed. So with that in mind, he teamed up with the FBI on Tuesday for a self-care oriented collab where the agency seized his cell phone as part of a federal investigation into an alleged breach of voting machines in Colorado. Here he is describing the incident in his own words. 


[clip of Mike Lindell] The FBI came after me and took my phone and surrounded me at a Hardee’s. And uh took my phone that I run all my business, everything with. They could have just [?]. What they’ve done is weaponize. The FBI um is disgusting. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Oh my god. 


Priyanka Aribindi: If you could see our facial expressions right now. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Oh, my God. Why does he sound just like Trump? The same vocal situation is going on there and it’s actually terrifying. 


Priyanka Aribindi: I don’t like it one bit. Listen, it’s disgusting, by the way, is the tagline for the new barbecue triple burger at Hardee’s, which uh he undoubtedly was in line for when this happened. Lindell also said that FBI agents questioned him about an old friend of his, a Colorado election clerk, who may have helped an outsider copy election data off of county voting systems. Another detail from this which highlights how insane it is that Lindell is one of the main self-appointed experts on high tech voter fraud. He said that part of the reason why his phone is so important to him is that he doesn’t own a computer. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Now, hold on. [laugh] He’s running this company without a computer? 


Priyanka Aribindi: Apparently. Like, I have so many questions. 


Tre’vell Anderson: You know, he probably goes to, like, the library for, you know, to send his emails and stuff like that. You know, when you’ve got like a long email, you have to type out, that you don’t want to do on your phone. That’s cute, right? 


Priyanka Aribindi: And those are the headlines. 


Tre’vell Anderson: One more thing before we go. Let’s be honest. We’re all worried, darlin. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yes we are. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Luckily, Keep It is here to talk about it. Crooked’s Ira Madison III and Louis Virtell make sense of the inescapable media storm surrounding Olivia Wilde’s film Don’t Worry Darling. And Betty Gilpin returns to talk about her new book, All the Women in My Brain, which she says is for, quote, “Anybody that feels insane”. Tune into new episodes of Keep It every Wednesday wherever you get your podcasts. [music break]


Priyanka Aribindi: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe. Leave a review. Order the it’s disgusting at Hardee’s and tell your friends to listen. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And if you’re into reading and not just the entire Ethereum blockchain from start to finish like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 


Priyanka Aribindi: I’m Priyanka Aribindi. 


[spoken together] And sleep tight MyPillow guy. 


Tre’vell Anderson: You know, I know his pillow allegedly, right, is like good for your sleeping and whatnot. 


Priyanka Aribindi: I mean, he doesn’t have a phone. Like.


Tre’vell Anderson: Exactly. 


Priyanka Aribindi: A few days without a phone might really turn my sleep around. [laughter] [music break] What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzi Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein and our executive producer is Lita Martínez. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.