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Just Imagine…

July 17, 2017
Bill Hohlfeld

During our last broadcast, we discussed the “great railroad strike of 1877.” And while facts are facts and need to be recounted, I am willing to admit that I am among the many whose eyes glaze over when I hear numbers and statistics laid out for me as though I were attending an actuarial buffet.

But, allow me, if you will, a moment to cull just one number from the discussion, as I am sure it is one we can all digest – 45%.

That is the percentage by which the executives of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad chose to cut the pay of railroad employees. It was a tipping point. It was the level of injustice and imposition of economic hardship at which workers would simply say, “No! I’d rather lose my freedom, or worse, my life, rather than accept this, because this is no life at all.”

So, think about how much money you make right now. Don’t bother taking into account medical benefits or pension plans, because those didn’t exist back then. (There was a death benefit, however. The lucky widow received $8.25) Just think about your pay packet. Do you take home $600 a week, $700, more? Fine. Now take that number, whatever it is, and slash it by 45%.

The area median income for New York City in 2016 was $90,600 for a family of four. (While that may look like a decent number at first glance, I would challenge you to find a couple raising two children in this city who aren’t dancing as fast as they can on that kind of money.) Now, just imagine for a moment that the family is operating on the old model of a working father and stay- at- home mom. So, dad is pulling down his $90,600 working for a transportation company, and one day he goes to work, and the supervisor tells him that this week, instead of receiving a check for $1,742.30, he will be paid $958.27. And by the way, it will stay that way until further notice.

No warning is given. There is no opportunity for meaningful discussion or negotiation. More importantly, there is no reduction in the cost of rent, clothing, or groceries. All that comes from the employer, is a message that he is now worth only half of what he was worth yesterday. All that is left with the employee are feelings of rage and impotence, along with dark visions of the future.  Can you imagine?

Well, we have similar versions of that scenario today. When the West Virginia coal mine shuts down and leaves town, and the only alternative to public assistance is becoming a greeter at Walmart, you can bet that worker took at least a 45 % cut in pay. When a worker’s share in medical insurance (if they are lucky enough to have it) jumps from 20% to 50 or 60% it doesn’t feel much different. If a school bus driver whose been getting forty hours of work from a school district for years suddenly has his or her hours cut to 29 per week so they are not eligible for help under the Affordable Care Act, the pain is the same.

While estimates vary a bit, it has been reported that as a result of the debacle of 1877, 39 buildings, 104 engines, 46–66 passenger cars, and 1,200–1,383 freight cars were destroyed. The financial losses were in the millions. The personal losses incalculable. I doubt if people today process grief, loss, and anger much differently today than they did in 1877. Just imagine.
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