Reported by Timothy Noah for The New Republic.
From time to time the Democrats are given an opportunity to demonstrate that they’re still the party of the working class. They have one now, but it looks like they’re going to flub it.
A railroad contract negotiated in September by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh was voted down by four of the 12 unions needed to ratify it, including the biggest one, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, which represents train conductors. That left the Biden administration and Congress with four choices. They could have allowed a threatened rail strike to move forward; Biden could have imposed, unilaterally, a cooling-off period under the 1926 Railway Labor Act; they could, under the same law, have forced the parties to accept a modified version of the Walsh contract that addressed the unions’ objections; or they could have forced the parties to accept the Walsh contract.
Any one of the first three choices would signal that the Democrats retained their allegiance to organized labor, still the only institution in the United States that reliably represents the interests of the working class. But Biden chose the fourth and absolute worst option, compromising his credibility as a pro-labor president. It’s not too late for Senate Democrats to reverse this stance and reassert their party’s allegiance to working people. Even if they do, though, they won’t have the votes to deliver an improved contract.
None of the choices Biden faced was a good one. About one-third of freight travels by train. According to a report that the American Association of Railroads put out in September and that the unions don’t dispute, a rail strike would cost the economy more than $2 billion per day and would limit cities’ access to clean water, because the necessary chemicals (chlorine, sodium hypochlorite, etc.) can travel only by freight. Passenger service on Amtrak would be halted because freight railroads own and maintain 97 percent of the tracks Amtrak travels on. Inflation, which is starting to come under control, might surge.
These are all good reasons to avert a strike. (They’re even better reasons, as I argued in September, to nationalize the railroads.) But a rail strike wouldn’t likely last very long. The previous one, in 1992, lasted two days before Congress shut it down. Then-Senator Joe Biden voted against congressional intervention. “I am concerned about the serious effects of a continued shutdown of our nation’s rail system,” Biden said, continuing:
But I am also concerned that we are rewarding a concerted decision of the railroads that would have caused fevered expressions of outrage by industry had the unions taken a similar step.… The unions had serious questions about the seriousness of the railroads’ efforts to reach an agreement.
Not a word Biden uttered then would be out of place today, except insofar as 30 years of industry consolidation and downsizing and stock buybacks have made the situation much worse. The only upside to Wall Street’s growing dominance of the rail industry is that a rail strike would cause such mayhem in the financial markets that management would be even more desperate than in the past to end it. Did the economy spin out of control during the previous 48-hour strike, back when the economy was more dependent on rail freight than it is today? It did not. “Let it happen,” Michael Paul Lindsey, a locomotive operator for Union Pacific, who sits on the steering committee of Railroad Workers United, an inter-union “solidarity caucus,” told me. “It would only last a few days.”
The safest choice would have been for Biden to impose a “cooling-off” period as permitted under the Railway Labor Act (more precisely, to extend the one Biden first imposed in July). In Politico, Ben White reports that the White House never considered this because, according to an unnamed administration official, the rail unions never requested one. That’s a pretty lame excuse. The rail unions never requested that Biden and Congress force adoption of the Walsh contract either.
Greg Regan, president of the transportation trades department of the AFL-CIO, told me that extending the cooling-off period would have been a “massive mistake” because management is inflexible and prospects for improving the agreement at the bargaining table would be too dim. Also, he said, extending talks into January would risk imposition of a settlement less favorable to the unions by the incoming Republican House. An unnamed administration official quoted by White said the same. But Biden could veto any such settlement. And if it looked as though the House and Senate were about to override such a veto (which seems unlikely), the unions could take that risk into account. If the rank and file rejected a second agreement and Congress imposed a less favorable one over Biden’s veto, nobody could blame a sympathetic White House.
Management is intransigent because it’s confident that Congress won’t allow any disruption in rail service. As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce points out, over the past six decades the Railway Labor Act has been invoked no fewer than 18 times to prevent European-style rail strikes, most recently in October 1994. And indeed, on Wednesday the House voted 290–137 to impose the Walsh contract.
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