When President Joe Biden helped to engineer a tentative agreement to avert a threatened railroad workers’ strike earlier this fall, a narrative of benevolent patrician governance locked immediately into gear. Knowing that a massive work stoppage would upend an already beleaguered supply chain, Biden acted swiftly to resolve the wage-and-hours issues that separated rail owners and the four major rail workers’ unions. And amid much pundit-brokered anxiety over runaway inflation in the run-up to the 2022 midterms—a trend that would surely be accelerated by a rail strike—the prospective deal also earned praise for its political savvy.
A few months later, though, Biden’s negotiating prowess looks a lot less savvy. As the tentative agreement lurched toward its December 6 deadline, rail owners gave no ground on one of the unions’ central demands—a provision for paid sick leave, which represents a fairly nominal outlay for management, weighed against the industry’s $10 billion or so in recent stock buybacks. So in a last-ditch effort to avoid a strike, Biden summoned Congress to act. And since “Congress acting” in matters of economic justice often translates into a prescription for fatalism, a House bill to secure seven days of paid sick leave for rail workers was preordained to fail in the Senate for want of a filibuster-proof majority, the same senseless roadblock that doomed better versions of the Affordable Care Act, Build Back Better, and just about any measure aimed at improving the material prospects for American workers. On Thursday afternoon, everything went to script: The Senate passed the draconian bill compelling rail unions to accept the existing agreement—which Biden is expected to sign at the earliest opportunity—and voted down the sick leave measure, 53-47.
In practical terms, this means that Biden has leveraged the power of Congress to ratify the bargaining terms that management wanted. This outcome is as depressing as it is predictable—and an especially dismaying legacy in the making for a chief executive who likes to style himself our “most pro-union president.” It’s clear in retrospect that rail owners were exploiting Biden’s vulnerable political position. “They knew how this might play out, and they could see Biden was heading into rough water with inflation,” says Georgetown University historian Joseph McCartin, author of Collision Course, the authoritative history of the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike. “So they thought why not lean into it and force him to play the bad guy?”
Biden’s strategic miscue has been compounded by a tactical one: Congress is now seeking to broker an accord in a process that disarms rail workers of their most effective point of leverage—the threat of withholding their labor. “The thing that people need to understand is: Rail bosses have been banking on this result the whole time,” says Maximillian Alvarez, editor in chief of The Real News Network, host of the Working People podcast, and author of The Work of Living. “It is because they always expected that any president and any Congress—Democrat or Republican—would bail them out in the end and force a contract down workers’ throats rather than risk a rail shutdown that the carriers have seen no reason to bargain in good faith for the past three years or seriously consider addressing any of the dire quality of life and workplace-safety issues workers have been screaming about.”
John Tormey, a maintenance worker for Commuter Railroad Massachusetts and a member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance Way Employees, says that these conditions—and the calculated neglect of rail owners—are what pushed things to the brink for rail workers. “I’m surprised they didn’t call a strike earlier; you know, a strike is a release valve. It forces the owners to deal with you.” Instead, rail managers just “keep people working, they still get their money, and they laid off something like 35,000 workers over the past three years.”
The deal in Congress—where members enjoy unlimited sick days—bears testimony to the way federal power has aligned itself firmly on the side of owners and management for the past half-century. It’s worth recalling that when President Harry Truman faced the prospect of a steel strike in 1952, he didn’t seek Congress’s blessing on a deal to preserve the industry’s boss-friendly status quo. No, after steel owners refused an accord brokered by the Wage Stabilization Board, he issued an executive order to nationalize the steel industry. Truman cited the “national emergency” of the Korean War. The Supreme Court soon ruled Truman’s order unconstitutional, but, tellingly, Truman rejected the Republican Congress’s preferred model of labor relations—the reactionary 1947 Taft-Hartley law, which permitted states to override prior federal union protections. “The Court and Congress got us in the fix we’re in now,” he said. “Let Congress find a way out of it.”
Biden, by contrast, wants the lame-duck Democratic Congress to certify the fix he’s made for himself by knuckling under to rail owners. “Labor was a force in Truman’s time in a way that’s diminished now,” McCartin says. “You remember Truman’s famous quote in 1948—after the ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ headline, his quote was, ‘Labor did this.’ And they did. They won the election for him. You can look at what labor did in this midterm election–to begin with, you wouldn’t have the Nevada Senate win without the Culinary Workers Union. Labor was a key wall against that effort to build a red wave. Biden needs to be aware of that.”
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party’s scrambled politics of the railroad conflict have produced some unlikely claims of worker solidarity from the right. Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio announced that he wouldn’t support any agreement that didn’t have the backing of rail workers, and Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn signaled support for sick-day legislation sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders before returning to form and siding with the bosses. This largely cost-free posturing by a GOP caucus that likes to cosplay as the party of the working class bears additional glum testimony to the Democrats’ feckless record on labor issues. “It’s a pretty sad state of affairs that Biden and most congressional Democrats have sided with the rail bosses and put themselves in a position where they can be nominally outflanked by the likes of Marco frickin’ Rubio,” Alvarez says. “But I hold Rubio to the same standard that I hold every politician to: Are you there for workers when it counts, or do you just use them to grandstand when the stakes are low for you?”
It’s not a test that many Democrats are meeting all that well. “Now leaders in Congress are saying, ‘We don’t have time to do what Sanders is asking,’” McCartin says. “If that’s the argument, the question then becomes, why did you wait until now?”
This procedural entropy stands out in contrast to breathless media reporting on the prospect of a rail strike, which reliably invokes the specter of inflationary doom while scarcely mentioning the underlying fight for sick days. The result is a split-screen image, demonstrating how popular notions of the “the economy” have become divorced from the people creating value within it. “With what we do, you’re either moving people or you’re moving freight, and a lot of that freight is very important, and can’t be moved on trucks.” Tormey says. “I hate the essential worker stuff—everyone’s an essential worker—but at a moment like this, you know, the veil is lifted. And it shows how important the work is, and how little they care about the people who are actually doing the work.”
This is why the rail fight is much more than just another exercise in Olympian social control for Democrats in Washington. “It’s a moment of truth for the Biden administration,” McCartin says. “You can’t simply force workers to go along with an unjust system. At some point they’ll say to hell with it. When people feel like they’ve been pushed to the breaking point, they’ll snap.”