Anchor Staff Writer
President Joe Biden has no more ubiquitous of a creed than his classic campaign stop motto; “The middle class built America, and unions built the middle class.” Thus, Biden’s betrayal of railroad workers in the face of a national strike is an especially bitter pill to swallow.
Negotiations have been ongoing since 2019, and members of 12 transportation worker unions have been in a continuing tug-of-war with major rail companies. Issues include wage increases and bonuses, which the unions and companies have mediated through, but talks fell through after negotiations on sick pay fell apart.
After four union’s members rejected the deal offering a 14.1% pay increase but only one day of paid sick time, as opposed to the 15 days requested by union membership, Biden called on Congress to force the agreement on rail workers. In this, Biden has moved to override the union member’s wishes to simply be granted fair working conditions.
Biden has made no bones about his support for organized labor, and has claimed to have been one of the most steadfast pro-union presidents in recent history. Notably, he has signed an executive order to promote union membership and strengthen collective bargaining and supported the since-stalled PRO Act. However, in the face of a national strike, Biden and the Democratic Party have caved to the interests of multinational rail companies over the needs of workers in the United States.
This move is not especially shocking; the United States economy has been turbulent as it recovered from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy has been consistently ranked as a top issue among U.S. citizens currently. The puzzling question behind this move is not why it happened, but why Biden has failed to use the presidency’s bully pulpit to demand billion-dollar rail companies cease in steamrolling their workers.
Although paid sick leave is shockingly not yet federally mandated, railroad workers are one of the few laborers not to receive this basic right. This is due to the rise of a practice in the rail industry known as precision scheduled railroading. This method of conducting freight railroad operations uses fixed schedules as opposed to an at-need dispatch basis, and reduced size freight car fleets with longer trains.
As this set of procedures has resulted in a sharp uptick in profits, it has also resulted in less reliable service combined with dangerous working conditions and mass layoffs due to the need for less employees. This policy is central to the ongoing negotiations; when so few rail workers are required, the attendance of workers even under emergency circumstances in their lives becomes essentially mandatory.
In the existing conditions, rail workers are dominated by their profession both on and off the jobsite. As the economy stagnates while rail companies make billions in profits, workers are forced to weigh going to work sick or taking penalties that force a reduction in their hours or even put their job at risk.
These risks are antithetical to the idea of fair labor in America and a significant issue for the essential rail workers we fail to appreciate. As workers for rail companies unite to take on the well-funded corporations that seek to dominate them, Congress has decided to sidestep their requests in the name of curtailing any potential strikes.
Passage of the law to force the labor unions to adopt the agreement with one sick day only sailed through the House and Senate and has since been signed into law by Biden. A paired amendment to ensure seven days of paid sick leave for workers, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and backed in a bipartisan manner by U.S. senators from across the aisle such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), was struck down in a 52-43 vote.
Following this move, the pro-labor reputation of Biden and the Democrat Party has taken a massive blow. A rail strike is a fearsome threat to the U.S. economy, potentially costing the nation $2 billion a day, but what of the fears from predatory companies imposing on victimized workers? That question is one union workers will be asking as the paltry deal is forced upon them by their former governmental allies.
If the union membership moves to strike anyways? This move is not completely unprecedented. In 1981, unionized air traffic controllers moved to illegally strike after negotiations on shorter work weeks and earlier retirement failed. President Reagan declared the strike a "peril to national safety" and swiftly fired every worker who failed to return to their jobs while demanding fair practices.
What would Biden’s next move be? To become the anti-labor atrocity he so often denounced? Or to reverse course past the Congress and back to the negotiating table? Regardless, his labor reputation is now at risk, and either of these moves would prove tarnishing. In the finale of this dispute, no matter the end result or how the union membership responds, politicians that backed the wealthiest companies over the basic needs of workers will have to look inwards to understand where this all derailed.