This past month’s wrangling over a looming strike on America’s railways saw Democratic leaders toe an extremely strange, and characteristically incoherent, line. Any strike, as statements from the likes of Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi made explicitly clear, was to be avoided at all costs — even if that meant imposing a contract on railworkers that failed to address their key demand for paid sick days. At the same time, and often in the same breath, the likes of Biden, Pelosi, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg insisted that workers deserved the very thing their own chosen course was leaving them without.
In the wake of recent events, the official position of the Biden White House continues to be that railworkers should indeed be afforded the paid sick time they had been set to strike for. That’s notable because, as commentators like the American Prospect’s David Dayen (and, as of last Friday, numerous members of the House and Senate as well) have pointed out, a clear avenue for doing exactly that remains open — one that bypasses the arcane rules of the Senate entirely. As an open letter signed by Bernie Sanders and some seventy-one other representatives points out, Biden has at his disposal the power to issue an executive order mandating federal contractors to provide their workers with paid sick days.
Such an action, though almost certain to be challenged in court, would have both precedent and democratic legitimacy on its side. Majorities in both houses of Congress, after all, have actually voted for sick days already. Moreover, a 2015 executive order issued by Barack Obama that extended them to roughly three hundred thousand workers employed by federal contractors provides a clear template. That order, as detailed by Rebecca Burns, Julia Rock, and Matthew Cunningham-Cook, included certain concessions demanded by various actors in the business lobby and, as a result, railworkers (and a number of others) were indefensibly excluded.
If he wanted to, Biden could act now to try and correct this omission. As the letter sent by Sanders and other lawmakers points out, the total cost of providing seven paid sick days to roughly 115,000 rail workers would be about $321 million. If that sounds like a lot of money, it shouldn’t: as the same letter observes, it actually constitutes less than 2 percent of the industry’s annual profits. The self-interested arguments of rail barons as to why workers in their own sector should be excluded from existing federal sick time provisions, in other words, don’t stand up to basic scrutiny. Rail companies have been enjoying tremendous profits for years and could easily fund them if compelled to do so.
It’s a big if, of course, because the triangulating rhetoric of the Biden White House to date doesn’t inspire much confidence. Throughout this whole affair, the administration has clearly prioritized avoiding a strike at all costs — and has both acquiesced to the Chamber of Commerce and strong-armed workers in order to do so. Nevertheless, if Biden were interested in rebuilding his now thoroughly tarnished reputation as a prolabor president, using the tremendous executive authority at his disposal to confront the rail companies would be an obvious place to start.
A confrontation with private industry is what would almost certainly be required — not only because an executive order would be challenged in the courts but because the Democratic Party has been all too keen to cultivate ties with leading rail barons like BNSF’s Warren Buffett.
Still, failure to pursue the most obvious and direct path to winning more than one hundred thousand workers paid sick time would represent yet another glaring — and revealing — case of Democratic leaders refusing to act in the very manner their own outwardly prolabor rhetoric demands.