Biden and the Democrats have betrayed rail workers and organized labor


Photo courtesy of Rail Workers United

People rally in solidarity with rail workers in New York City’s Grand Central Station on Dec. 7. 2022.

Patrick Kane, World News Editor

“Strong unions built the great American middle class. Everything that defines what it means to live a good life and know you can take care of your family…is because of workers who organized unions and fought for worker protections.” 

These words open up the page “Empowering Workers” on Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign website. Biden ran a campaign that tied itself closely to organized labor and touted himself as one of the most pro-labor presidents in American history. However, within the last week, Biden has torpedoed a lot of that goodwill as he has spearheaded a congressional effort to bust the impending rail worker’s strike.

For several months now, rail workers and rail unions all across the country have been trying to negotiate with their respective companies. Several deals have been accepted; however, most also have been rejected, making the probability of a national strike near certain. 

The main point of contention for the workers is the lack of guaranteed sick days in any of the aforementioned deals. The reason for this dates back to 2015 when then-President Barack Obama signed an executive order guaranteeing seven days of paid sick leave for all federal workers and federal contractors… except rail workers, which had a specific clause excluding them from the order.

The threat of a nationwide strike inspired much anxiety because of what it could mean for the already weakened US economy, particularly a disruption in the supply chain right before Christmas. This mass fear led to some calling for Biden and the federal government to intervene.

Intervene he did. On Nov. 28, Biden took to Twitter and called on Congress to pass the tentative agreement (the most consensus deal that has been offered). Essentially, he was invoking the Railroad Labor Act of 1925, which maintains that the federal government can regulate railroad union negotiations.

This move drew pushback immediately. Democrats, like Alaska Rep. Mary Peltola and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, pushed back on Biden’s move. Rail Workers United, an inter-union caucus encompassing a vast majority of rail workers, released a statement saying “the ‘most labor-friendly president’ has opted to side with Big Business and call for a thwarting of railroad workers’ right to strike.” Additionally, more than 500 different labor historians signed a letter condemning Congress’ plan.

President Joe Biden signs H.J.Res.100, a bill that aims to avert a freight rail strike, in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, in Washington. ((AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta))

Nevertheless, the agreement was sent to Congress. Two bills were presented in the House: one averting a strike and the other guaranteeing sick days, proposed by New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman. Both bills passed the House; however, once they arrived in the Senate, the tentative agreement was passed by an 80-15 margin. Meanwhile, the sick days’ bill failed, 52-43, with 42 Republicans and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin voting it down. Interestingly enough, several Republicans did in fact vote in favor of the sick days’ bill, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley.

After Congress voted, the White House released a statement essentially taking a victory lap. Biden touted the benefits rail workers would be receiving in the tentative agreement including a 24% raise, caps on health care costs and, in lieu of actual sick days, one “personal day”.

In spite of this, I am of the opinion that this is a startling betrayal of organized labor from the White House. Biden essentially kneecapped the rail worker’s bargaining power by stepping in and violating their ratification process using an archaic law. The only people who should have a say in approving contracts are the workers who seek to benefit from them, not Congress and certainly not the President. 

What Biden should have done is use his platform to pressure the rail companies rather than crush the workers. The bully pulpit exists for a reason. Biden could have used his power to push rail companies towards agreeing to a sufficient deal, especially one that provides an appropriate amount of paid sick days (“one personal day,” what a joke.). By pressuring the oligarchs, Biden could have placed the blame on the companies in the public eye, making them, from a PR perspective, the “villains” of the situation. Instead, by crushing the strike, he unintentionally shifted the blame onto the workers, positioning any further action by the unions as the antagonistic whining of petulant children.

This extends to the Democratic Party as a whole as well. Congress knew that sick leave would never pass on its own (granted this is because of Republicans) and they knew a combined bill would also never pass. So, by splitting them into two, separate pieces of legislation, they not only crushed the strike but also sat back and said they did everything they could while leaving rail workers out to dry. It also represents the sheer lack of long-term strategy on the Democrat’s part as the failure of a joint bill leading to a strike would place the blame squarely on congressional Republicans, essentially kicking them while they’re already down and possibly leg-sweeping the incoming House majority.

Democrats’ labor failures don’t end there. The bill to give these workers sick leave failed by a vote of 52-43. I will admit that math is not necessarily my strong suit, but I am pretty sure that 52 out of 100 is, in fact, a majority. Thanks to the Democrats catering to the delicate sensibilities of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, an antiquated legislative procedure killed a strike while denying workers the benefit of paid leave. That’s not even getting into Manchin voting against paid leave, continuing his tradition of pandering to the right to salvage a Senate seat that is dead on arrival in 2024. I find it incredibly funny how 100 people earning six figures (at minimum) a year and unlimited sick days have the gall to say to workers “we wanted to give you sick days, really, but, y’know, what are you gonna do? Now get back to work.”

It gets even better when one remembers that universal sick leave was originally included in Biden’s flagstaff Build Back Better bill but was axed due to pushback from Manchin (sensing a pattern here?). Democrats’ absolute faceplant on unionized labor this past week plays into some other shortcomings of Biden’s administration, namely the lack of funding for the National Labor Relations Board and the abandoning of the PRO Act.

Now, though I am going after the Democrats a lot here as they are the party in power, the Republican Party is far, far from innocent. A supermajority of Republicans in both the House and Senate voted to crush the strike while simultaneously voting to deny workers sick days. Republican politicians are awful. In other news, grass is green. The congressional GOP is terrible but, if there is one thing they aren’t right now, it is hypocritical (I mean, they are in general, just not in this specific situation). They hate labor unions, so they voted against them. They didn’t weave a tale of solidarity with workers before shanking them when their backs were turned. The fact of the matter is, a Democratic president announced he would be busting a strike and the GOP voted with him.

For some online liberals and assorted left-leaning media, responses have been mixed. Some have responded as I have above, outraged that Dems would turn on one of their key constituencies. Others, however, performed these Herculian leaps in logic to explain why strike busting isn’t that bad when a Democrat does it. Freelance journalist Magdi Jacobs, for example, argued that eight of the 12 major unions voted for the original agreement with only four voting it down. That does, in fact, sound like a valid point, no? However, as she herself points out later, those four unions represent a higher percentage of rail workers than the other eight combined, an argument she quickly tries to dismiss with some word salad rationale. 

Additionally, some have taken to utilizing “woke” language to say that all rail workers members are white working-class men who are inconsequential to Democrats’ electoral chances. Though a vast majority of workers are men and are majority white, nearly 31% are people of color.

Lastly, some decided to get real cutesy with it, pointing out “well technically, the strike hasn’t happened yet, so technically Biden didn’t strike bust!” Pardon me, for a moment, as I tear out some of my hair and scream into a pillow. This is textbook distinction without a difference. If you’re arguing semantics, you’re losing.

Regardless of the reasoning for the vote, rail workers and the unions were not happy with Congress and President Biden. The RWU released another statement decrying congressional intervention, proclaiming “we suffered a one-two punch at the hands of, at first, the Democratic Party; the second served up by the Republicans.”

The outrage and betrayal felt by rail workers was best summarized by Reese Murtagh, a Virginia rail worker who voted for Biden in 2020. In a recent CNN interview, Murtagh stated, “We’ve seen unionized workers’ right to bargain collectively get trampled on. Their voice has not been heard, they voted against a contract. We have a ‘pro-labor’ president who loves to pat himself on the back for that, [but] when the going got tough, he turned his back on the people he’s supposed to be looking out for…You don’t go against what [the] members voted for.”

What I sincerely don’t understand is the sheer aversion the government has to playing its hand and enforcing paid leave. Many feared that a strike would devastate the economy and supply chains. If these people have so much sway over the economy, why not give them sick days? What’s the big hassle? Canada just gave their railroad workers ten sick days! No one should have to come to work ill. During the COVID-19 pandemic, rail workers suffered nearly double the mortality rate of other blue-collar professions. Everyone was all “support essential workers!” until they got too finicky, huh?

The more I sit on it, the more I realize I actually lied in the previous paragraph. I know exactly why rail workers can’t get sick leave: greed. Pure, unadulterated greed. Workers don’t have sick days because the rail companies and the CEOs don’t want to give it to them. Simple as that. Within the last three years (basically the entire pandemic and its aftermath), railroad CEOs have made upwards of $200 million, none of which will ever be seen by the workers upholding them and their companies. They can afford to give their labor force paid leave, they just don’t feel like it. These oligarchs knew that if they held out on negotiations long enough, the government would swoop in and bail them out. And ultimately, they were right.

An outcome I don’t think some Democrats are taking into consideration is the effect this may or may not have on the union vote come 2024. Historically speaking, union members have been staunch supporters of the Democratic Party. However, this began to change in 2016 when union members seemingly rebuked Hillary Clinton in favor of Donald Trump. Though Biden managed to win some back in 2020, Trump and the GOP still had a decent amount of support. In light of this, Biden publicly circumventing the will of labor unions and parading it as a victory might not bode well for Democrat chances with rank-and-file workers.

With 2024 closing in soon, the GOP has also been gifted some new talking points. The GOP as of late has been attempting to brand itself as a right-wing populist working-class party. Some proponents of this rebrand include Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, both of whom, as previously mentioned, voted against averting the strike and in favor of giving workers sick leave. With Cruz flirting with a 2024 run and Hawley being somewhat of a flagbearer for the populist wing of the GOP, both can now strut around and claim they technically outflanked Joe Biden on labor issues, despite both being otherwise terrible in regards to unions and organized labor. 

This also sends a message to labor unions in other professions and not a good one at that. Unionization and striking are gaining popularity in this post-COVID America, from Starbucks to Amazon to academia. What message did the US federal government just send to them? If they are, God forbid, forced to strike at some point, they now have the knowledge hanging over their heads that, if things get to a certain point, the “most pro-labor president in history” might come in and bring the hammer down.

It is also infuriating because Biden wiped out the only leverage rail workers had. There was an opportunity here. If the economy was balanced so much on their shoulders, and with a presidential administration on their side, workers could have backed railroad companies into a corner and shifted public opinion. These people don’t want to strike if they can help it. Strikes are long, and tiring and take a toll both financially and emotionally. There’s a reason strikes are often the nuclear option.

Rail workers had all that going for them. With a single tweet, it all vanished into thin air.

Now that I’ve torn into the president for a bit, I actually do want to look at things from Biden’s perspective. Despite my many, many gripes with this series of events, from a realpolitik perspective, I understand the reasons why he did it. The economy is finally starting to recover from inflation and high gas prices. The holiday season is right around the corner. Biden doesn’t want to be the president that ruined Christmas, especially now that the 2024 election cycle has officially begun. From a purely political standpoint, I acknowledge the logic behind Biden’s actions. That said, it’s nevertheless unfortunate that, in order to protect his standing, rather than take a firm stand against rail owners and greedy corporations, he threw workers under the bus.

Now that I’ve sufficiently vented, I am obliged to ask the question: where do we go from here? 

Biden, despite crushing the strike, still says he wants to fight for sick days. Summer Lee, an incoming Democratic Congresswoman from Pittsburgh, supported one such solution: executive order. As much as I loathe having to agree with someone from Pittsburgh on anything, she makes an excellent point. This is a plan originally proposed by some of the unions who, after the strike bill’s passing, were forced to regroup and find a solution to obtaining sick leave. 

A freight train carries cargo through Wyoming in August 2022. (Patrick Fallon/Getty Images)

As of now, they are pushing for Biden to sign an executive order guaranteeing 56 hours (2.3 days) of paid sick leave. This is much less than they initially wanted (and much less than they deserve) but, at this point, I think they’ll just take what they can get. In my perfect world, Biden would sign an executive order revoking the clause in the 2015 executive order from Obama, opening up rail workers to universal sick days. Biden should also nationalize the railroads. He won’t, but it’d be really cool if he did.

However, in spite of congressional action, a strike might not have actually been averted. The Railroad Workers Rank-and-File Committee voted to declare Congress’ actions as illegitimate, leading many to wonder if the country will be faced with a wildcat strike, a strike done by union members without union authorization. That said, this is quite dangerous for the workers, thanks to the actions taken by the Biden administration. The workers have little leverage and much less job security due to their disputes technically being “resolved”. A wildcat strike could also lead to massive terminations which could actually impact the economy and supply chains just as much as a strike would have.

Ultimately, I just want to see these workers get their sick leave and Biden nuked what looked like their best chance to get it. With a divided government on its way in less than a month, congressional action is essentially out of the equation. A wildcat strike looks to probably do more damage (both to the workers and to the economy) than the original strike would have. Yet, Biden still has time to set things right. He can sign an executive order. He can overturn the 2015 executive order. Unions are furious with him but I doubt they’d turn their backs on him completely.

I have been rough on Biden in the past, certainly. However, in the last five months, from student loan forgiveness to his marijuana policies to Democrat’s overperformance in the midterm elections, I was finally starting to really come around “Brandon”. Let’s go, right? However, this sucked big time. What he did was horrible. As someone who hails from a strong union family (shoutout to Iron Workers Local 17), I could not overlook this or rationalize this like some liberals could. I had to speak my mind. I had to make it known that Joe Biden can’t get away with crushing labor just because he has a “D” next to his name. I think what he did was a travesty and I wanted to explain to the world why. I am very, very soured on Biden at this moment. But you know what?

Prove me wrong, Joe. Make me eat my words. I invite it. I want it. I am begging for it. As I explained, you have an opportunity to make things right. You have a chance to heal the wounds inflicted. In the end, it’s all up to you.

Solidarity forever.