For Railworkers, Sick Days Weren’t the Real Issue — It Was Basic Control of Their Lives

By ramming a contract down railworkers’ throats that they had previously rejected, Joe Biden turned to a kind of authoritarianism that cemented a basic fact of American life: when you’re at work, you have no democratic rights.

A railworker at the Union Pacific Intermodal rail terminal in Salt Lake City, Utah, on December 2, 2022. (George Frey / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

On December 2, President Joe Biden signed legislation he had requested to block an impending strike of 115,000 railroad workers, and impose the terms of a contract that a majority of those workers had voted to reject after three years of negotiations.

In so doing, he invoked the urgency of avoiding the economic catastrophe of a nationwide strike, while also touting the rejected contract he had brokered in September, saying that he had “negotiated a contract no one else can negotiate.”

The legislation may have blocked the immediate threat of a rail strike, although that remains railroad workers’ decision to make themselves. But by imposing a contract, Biden risks exacerbating the core problems that led to the current rail crisis, while further eroding a collective bargaining framework that has been crumbling for decades. The effect could be to turn US labor relations back to something closer to what they looked like in the nineteenth century.

While Biden touts the 24 percent pay raise over five years in the imposed contract, pay was never the issue for railworkers. Even the seven sick days that Biden wanted to include, but the Senate rejected, was not the issue. The real issue was, and remains, the rail companies’ near-total control over railworkers’ lives, whether or not they are on the clock.

Under current railroad attendance policies, many workers must be either at work or available to work within ninety minutes upward of 90 percent of all hours of the day and night, whether awake or asleep. Taking time off results in “points” getting deducted, which can result in termination. Not only does this make it difficult to see a doctor, but it makes any life outside of work virtually impossible. Soccer games, birthdays, weddings, funerals, holidays, and hobbies remain out of reach for most railworkers.

The policies even make something as basic as getting enough sleep a challenge, since workers can be summoned at any hour of the day and night. The predictable result is endemic fatigue among railworkers, with many reporting falling asleep at the switch. Given the toxic and flammable materials that trains carry, the danger to workers and the public is dire.

This is all a consequence of rail companies’ adoption of a system known as Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR). In their effort to boost profitability, they have cut staff by 30 percent over the past six years, lengthened trains, slashed safety inspections, and outsourced maintenance, leading to the staffing shortage that created the need for such draconian attendance policies. Meanwhile, safety has suffered and customer service has declined, even angering the large corporations that use rail to ship their goods.

Biden’s imposed contract does nothing to address these basic issues of human dignity and public safety, giving rail employers a pass. We can only expect these problems to get worse in coming years, especially as a wave of railworkers takes the retroactive back pay included in the contract deal and quits. Those who remain will have harder, more dangerous jobs. They will also be far less likely to trust what they can rightly see as a sham negotiation process that betrays them no matter how hard they try to make it work.

And here lies a deeper implication of Biden’s imposed deal. By flagrantly trampling railworkers’ collective bargaining rights, the self-described “most pro-union president ever” is engaging in another variant of the norm-violating attacks on democracy for which he and other Democrats often criticize their Republican counterparts.

The message of Biden’s legislation is clear: only some votes matter. Instead of respecting railworkers’ votes, Biden and Congress told them to shut up and get back to work.

The problem is that there is a limit to how much you can impose labor peace. That was the hard-learned lesson of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when waves of tumultuous strikes convulsed the country roughly every decade. Fittingly, most of these involved railworkers, who were then even more critical to the US economy than they are today.

Generations of judges and politicians sought to suppress workers’ demands for decent working conditions and the eight-hour day, using laws, jails, and soldiers’ bayonets. Coercion would work for a few years, only to lead to another upheaval.

The tension this running conflict exposed between the authoritarianism of industrial capitalism and the promise of political democracy made what was then called “the labor question” “the paramount economic question in this country” according to Justice Louis Brandeis.

The labor question found an uneasy answer in twentieth-century labor law: first the Railway Labor Act of 1926, later the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. That, combined with postwar economic expansion, papered over the tensions between economic authoritarianism and political democracy. These briefly resurfaced in the late 1960s and ’70s, only to be snuffed out by Ronald Reagan, the Volcker Shock recession, and the employer counteroffensive of the 1980s.

Now, railworkers are once again pushing the labor question back on the agenda, exposing the authoritarian regime that rail companies have imposed on their workers in search of ever-greater profits. Biden’s response takes a page from the nineteenth-century playbook, trying to suppress the problem instead of solving it.

It may work in the short term by preventing a strike. But the longer-term toll on workers’ lives, public safety, and democracy may prove far more costly.