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  • Logan Delavan-Hoover

On the Wrong Track: An Injury to One is an Injury to All

Congratulations are due to President Biden. He’s achieved perhaps the most efficient legislative push of his administration, signed a bipartisan bill approved by two-thirds of Americans, averted billions in damage to the economy, and, apparently, saved Christmas. So it’s a shame that the bill he signed on December 2nd to avert a railroad strike is a betrayal of every exploited worker in the country.

Negotiations between rail companies and unions in the US have been ongoing since 2019. One of the main issues in the negotiations is the unreasonable scheduling that rail workers must endure, including being on call 24/7 for extended periods of time without any paid sick leave. Four of the twelve major rail unions, which represent a majority of rail workers, voted against a contract deal that made some improvements but did not include any paid sick leave. To grant paid sick days is entirely within the means of the rail companies, as doing so would cost less than 2% a year of their annual stock buyback plan. On November 22nd, the four holdout unions set a strike to begin on December 9th if a deal was not made. With the clock ticking, two bills passed the House on November 30th: one that would force all rail unions to accept the contract as is and declared a strike illegal, and one that would give rail workers seven days of paid sick leave. The first bill passed the Senate by a wide margin, while the second bill failed to pass the Senate, 52-43, with nearly all Democrats and six Republicans voting in favor. Biden signed the bill to force rail workers to accept a contract without sick leave on December 2nd, 2022.

In defending his strikebreaking push, President Biden released an official statement claiming that the bill was, unfortunately, necessary to avert the economic damage of a rail strike. The November 28th statement said: “As a proud pro-labor President, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement. But in this case – where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families – I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.” This is a false dichotomy. Biden is right that it is essential to avoid a strike but fails to mention that he had a wide array of options to do so. Declaring the strike illegal is not the only way he could have prevented a rail shutdown, as he could have pushed harder for the second bill to pass the Senate, packaged the two bills into one, or even guaranteed sick days by an unambiguously legal executive order.

There are fundamentally two ways to prevent an impending strike: create obstacles to the strike being carried out, or make a deal that satisfies the demands of the workers. Corporations prefer the former, while laborers strike only out of hope for the latter. In the past, the US government has not always made the best decisions in this regard. During Woodrow Wilson's administration, 25 striking miners were killed in the Ludlow massacre, and under the Reagan administration, 11,000 striking air traffic controllers were fired. Biden is now a part of that chain of history. The threat to the economy is a valid reason to want to prevent a strike, but Biden had the option to do so by standing on the side of workers. His hands were not tied - he simply chose not to do so.

It’s difficult to overstate the economic devastation a rail strike would cause. However, it’s possible to put a rough number on it: $2 billion a day. This wouldn’t be evenly spread through the economy, but would rather manifest itself through a few major downstream industries and services grinding to a halt. Chemical shipments would be the first to stop, resulting in water treatment plants running out of chlorine to purify drinking water, while fertilizer plants would run out of ammonia and gasoline refineries would slow production. In the realm of food, products made out of grain or peanuts would disappear from grocery store shelves while chickens and pigs would be left without feed. Amtrak and some other commuter rail systems would mostly shut down as well, straining the entire national transportation system when it is already strained by the holiday travel rush. Rail workers would not threaten to highlight their importance to the economy in such a drastic manner if they were not driven by their desperation to be treated with dignity.

Strikes are supposed to be disruptive. The more disruptive a strike is, the more powerfully it highlights that its workers are indispensable to the functioning of our society and deserve respect. But instead, Biden has indicated that if a strike is large enough, the federal government will act against workers. Strikes are one of the most effective tools workers have to even the imbalance of power between them and their employers. Without that threat, workers are in a feeble position in negotiations. This weakens the power of the entire labor movement and reverberates through the economy in subtle ways that will negatively affect wages and working conditions for every American for years to come.

Rail unions, other unions, and labor historians are all angry, and they have every right to be. Biden has presented a false dichotomy between standing with labor and averting economic chaos while ignoring that the latter can be achieved by the former. By choosing to declare the strike illegal rather than addressing the workers' demands, Biden has aligned himself with a history of US presidents who have prioritized corporate interests over those of workers.

A final unrelated note/disclaimer: Like many of you a few years from now, I used the new chatGPT generative text AI to help me edit this article. I’ve found the concerns that chatGPT will replace all writers unfounded thus far, as it writes with the sophistication of a mediocre high schooler at best. But it serves well as a tool for cutting out unnecessary fluff and ensuring clarity. It also deserves credit for coming up with the pun in the title. Check it out while it's still a zero-day exploit.


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