Which side are you on? It’s the most fundamental question in politics, and President Joe Biden has given us his answer.
Last night, the White House released a statement calling on Congress to impose a contract on railway workers, with more than a week remaining before the December 9 strike deadline. Describing himself as a “proud pro-labor president” and expressing his “reluctance,” Biden nonetheless indicates his intention to try and force terms on workers that many already rejected earlier this year. The rhetorical triangulation was even more glaring in the statement released by outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which hit many of the same notes as Biden’s while adding, “As we consider Congressional action, we must recognize that railroads have been selling out to Wall Street to boost their bottom lines, making obscene profits while demanding more and more from railroad workers.”
Democratic leaders are, in effect, declaring their solidarity with the American working class while actively siding with the very business interests they say are exploiting it. It’s a clear violation of fundamental labor rights and a concession to the US Chamber of Commerce, which has issued predictable pleas for Congress to intervene and prevent a strike ahead of the holiday season.
In the foreground of the dispute is the issue of paid sick time. More than one hundred thousand workers employed at America’s railways do not currently receive paid sick days and face strict and punitive attendance policies that leave many with no weekends and little time off. At the Warren Buffett–owned BNSF, for example, workers are allotted a point balance that diminishes if they’re unavailable for work — even in cases of illness or emergency. Those who reach a balance of zero can incur a ten- or twenty-day suspension, with a subsequent zero balance resulting in termination.
These are degrading terms of work no reasonable person would accept as fair. As engineer Ross Grooters put it to Mother Jones in September, workers are essentially “fighting for the basic right to be able to be people outside of the railroad.” Michael Baldwin, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen — one of four unions that rejected the deal now likely to be imposed — explained that the problem has been long-standing but, for obvious reasons, has been of particular concern to workers over the past two years: “This became a glaring issue during the pandemic when we had members who were forced by their employers, the railroads, to stay home and quarantine without pay. But really it comes down to simple things like the flu for a day or two, or a sick child, and the ability to take a day or two paid.” In a series of testimonials published by More Perfect Union, worker after worker said much the same.
A separate analysis by MPU also made clear that the dispute is in many ways a microcosm of the broader shift of power away from labor and toward capital that has increasingly defined the American economy in recent decades.
Financial filings of several major US rail companies reveal not only that the industry is incredibly profitable but also that profits have grown without a commensurate share of the gains going to workers. Since 2001, margins have almost tripled at major carriers, while the share of revenue going to labor has dropped by double digits. Twenty years ago, investors in major freight companies could expect $15 in profit for every $100 in revenue. Today, that figure is more than $41. Companies are also employing many fewer workers today, leaving those who are employed with longer hours and even less time off. Many are expected to be on call more or less around the clock and can be required to report for shifts of nearly eighty hours on only ninety minutes’ notice. Shareholders, meanwhile, have received bigger and bigger payouts.
As MPU’s Eric Gardner concluded, “the data suggest that the money once spent on fully staffing locomotives is now spent on enriching shareholders through dividend payments and stock repurchases.” In other words, rail companies have cut jobs in order to spend less on wages and boost profits while forcing workers on understaffed trains to accept punitive conditions, longer hours, and little time off.
By opting to strong-arm the railway unions, Biden is doing his utmost to ensure that this exploitative dynamic continues. He’s also indicating to corporate interests in other industries that his own espoused pro-labor beliefs do not extend to supporting workers once they actually threaten to create inconvenience or disruption — which is, of course, their only real source of leverage. If the possibility of a strike in December is so unthinkable, Biden and other leading Democrats could instead try to legislate a fair deal that meets union demands and includes the paid sick time workers need.
That they’re choosing to do otherwise is a betrayal of workers everywhere.