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Trains, Planes, and Amazon

Despite, and perhaps because of, the struggles of the airline industry, train travel is becoming a more appealing option for European travellers. Part of that is due to government action. As part of the European Green Deal, countries are forcing airlines to reduce competition for high-speed trains. France, as part of their bailout of Air France during the pandemic, required the airline to eliminate domestic flights for which there was a rail option of less than two and a half hours. The Austrian government did the same to Austrian Airlines, meaning that the 50-minute flight between Vienna and Salzburg was eliminated to make room for a three-hour train ride. In addition to reducing competition, the EU is set on improving infrastructure, both digital and physical. This includes introducing cross-border data-sharing systems, replacing ageing infrastructure, and building high-speed routes in Central and Eastern Europe. Their express goal is to make train trips of less than four hours the ideal option for businesspeople, and for normal tourists, for trips below six hours. After all, when airport transfer, check-in, and various COVID restrictions are factored in, high-speed rail can end up being the faster option. It is certainly more comfortable.

Let’s face it: travelling via plane over the last two years has been terrible. Airlines tried their best, but being in buildings of stressed-out people worried about a disease that transmits based on proximity just was not a good combination. Train travel is reliable, safe, and far more environmentally friendly than air travel. There is also far more room to work on a train when compared to the standard airline seat. If governments invest enough to improve rail throughout Europe, the short-haul business flights will be a relic of the pre-COVID era.

The Amazon Union

Two years ago, Amazon fired Christian Smalls after he organised fellow workers at a warehouse on Staten Island to protest pandemic working conditions. Just last week, those workers voted to unionise, creating the Amazon Labour Union, the first union for US workers at Amazon, one of the nation’s largest employers. This story truly is remarkable: which the Amazon Labour Union had no formal ties to (or assistance from) more established unions. This was the bottom-up triumph of an independent group, something very rare in American labour history, especially in light of the size of Amazon. A New York Times opinion piece called it “A Small Earthquake on Staten Island” and touted it as a potential new dawn for pro-union movements across the country. But as it stands, this success story may end up being just a fluke. The fact of the matter is that potential unions across the country are facing a fiercely steep uphill battle. While the United States used to be a nation run by unions, the shift of the US economy from manufacturing to services took place during an era of right-wing dominance. This led to federal policy hostile to unions, and those in power were often willing to turn a blind eye to hard-line and sometimes illegal tactics used by employers to block unionisation drives.

Union participation is at an all-time low; the pandemic actually worsened this ongoing trend. Tellingly, the share of workers who would like to be in unions is much higher than the share of unionised workers. There is a pent-up demand for unions in the United States, a desire to get back to the way things were decades ago, but that demand is being stifled. Until there is substantial political will to get the rules changed at the national level, things will likely remain the same. And until that happens, the Staten Island story will likely remain a heart-warming tale, not a catalyst.