The stories of America’s rail workers are often told anonymously – no need to further antagonize their bosses, who set their schedules and who can, and do, make their lives miserable – and yet the details are painfully familiar to millions in a U.S. labor force in which the term “essential worker” isn’t really an honorific.
That’s why one rail worker didn’t give his name when he told The New York Times how he had to cancel an important medical scan when his employer called him back to work on his week off. Or why Justin Schaaf, a conductor on the BNSF line, lost a tooth recently – months after he chose to attend his son’s seventh birthday instead of keeping a dental appointment on a prized day off.
It’s those kinds of everyday horror stories from the American workplace that unionized rail workers hoped to write an ending to this fall as they fought to negotiate a new labor contract with the nation’s profit-drenched rail systems. Seeking paid sick days was a simple humane demand – one that was crushed last week when a labor deal lacking them, crafted by the Biden administration and endorsed by a bipartisan coalition in Congress, was imposed on 12 key rail unions.
To say that thousands of blue-collar Americans feel betrayed by a Democrat who famously promised to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen” would be an understatement. Rail union leaders say they’ve been inundated with calls and texts from rank-and-file members angry that they were badgered in 2020 to vote for Joe Biden, and who in no way would support him in 2024.
“Joe relied on us to get him home to his family,” Reece Murtagh, a roadway mechanic based in Richmond, Virginia, told NPR, referring to Biden’s nightly commute on Amtrak when he was a Delaware senator. Now Murtagh is furious that the president and Congress imposed a settlement that blocked workers from exercising their right to strike. “But when it was his turn to help us out … to better our life, he turned his back on us.”
In the 20th century, blue-collar workers like Murtagh and Schaaf weren’t only the backbone of a thriving U.S. economy, but their votes were cherished politically. But in the 21st century, working-class men and women – especially the dwindling numbers enrolled in labor unions – have practically no one in Washington fighting for their interests.
The sick leave sellout marked an aha moment for anyone who thought that Biden – child of Scranton and the last days of the Industrial Revolution – would be radically different. The president, in signing the emergency bill that averted a national rail strike that would have slowed the flow of goods right before Christmas, made a weak-tea promise to keep fighting for mandatory sick leave for all American workers – after inexplicably not using the leverage he had to make it happen here.
Meanwhile, in one of her final acts as a legislative wizard on Capitol Hill, outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi greenlighted the scheme that allowed members to ram through the deal that Team Biden crafted back in September while allowing Democrats to cast a just-for-show vote on a separate bill for seven paid sick days that she knew would never succeed in the Senate.
That’s because she understood Republicans – despite recent crowing from some conservatives that the GOP is now the party of the working class, amid the educational divide that sees Democrats increasingly as the bastion of college grads – would do their part to support the highly profitable, campaign-contributing corporate owners of railways and blow off actual laborers and their actual problems. Indeed, 42 of the 48 GOP senators present voted to block the worker sick days (joined by Democratic traitor Joe Manchin of West Virginia).
You didn’t need a rocket scientist or even a political scientist to see how Washington squandered an opportunity to both keep the trains running for the holidays and empower workers with paid sick time. Said Michigan U.S. Rep Rashida Tlaib, one of just eight House Democrats to oppose the forced settlement: “If the rail industry wants to avert a national rail strike, then they should provide their employees with guaranteed paid sick leave. As for the Democratic Party, if we are going to be the party of the working class, we need to stand with workers every time.”
So why won’t they? The “essential workers” of America’s rails seem to have been caught up in a perfect storm. The “most pro-labor president ever” taking the C-suite view on sick days is par for the course for a Biden presidency that often works to avoid bad chyrons on Fox News over consistent policy – which also explains why the most pro-climate president ever is obsessed with keeping the gasoline nozzle open.
Not that the federal government needs much prodding to adopt the most Wall Street-friendly view of any crisis, regardless of which party is controlling Congress and the White House. In this case, rail executives lobbied hard that while they could make concessions on other issues like wages, giving workers more power to take sick days was a deal breaker because of their lean system known as “precision-scheduled railroading,” or PSR. That system allowed rail corporations to cut their payrolls by 30% while posting sky-high profits, but the system depends on harsh schedules for workers that collapse if just a few call out sick.
Simply put, the activist investors who keep the stock price of these railroads so high demand that PSR stay in place, as the linchpin of a system that delivered $27 billion in yearly profits for the seven major carriers. So rail executives – who’ve spent much of that windfall on dividends or stock buybacks – can’t spare a dime for sick days.
Wrote New York magazine’s Eric Levitz in an excellent analysis: “That strategy is predicated on treating rail workers as if they were nearly indistinguishable from the railcars they drive. The typical railcar requires maintenance at predictable intervals and does not require an unanticipated day off to see a doctor about an unexplained pain or to visit a loved one in the hospital. But workers often do.”
Of course, that strategy also got a hearing on Capitol Hill after the rail companies spent a collective $13 million lobbying Congress, as their executives and PACs doled out another $3.3 million in campaign contributions this election cycle, according to Open Secrets. Sometimes the best explanation is the simplest: Money still talks.
The plight of the rail worker epitomizes the broader workforce issues facing America coming out of the pandemic. The tight labor market since 2020’s COVID-19 lockdowns has meant low unemployment and rising wages – albeit, increasingly swallowed by inflation – but also brutal conditions for those employees getting a slow clap as “essential workers” while toiling 12-hour days or on unpredictable schedules that wear them to the bone.
The cruel conditions of the post-pandemic workplace have already triggered walkouts at companies like Kellogg’s – where cereal workers complained of working more than 100 days in a row with no weekends and said “they don’t even treat us as well as they do their machinery” – or at Frito-Lay, where workers won one guaranteed day off a week by striking for 19 days, using the leverage that rail workers were just denied.
“This whole railroad workers episode further clarifies that the ‘essential worker’ discourse we’ve been bombarded with for almost (three years) is about disciplining workers to labor in perilous conditions, and not about respecting and protecting the people who do vital work,” Sarah Lazare of Workday Magazine wrote on Twitter.
What is so incredibly frustrating is that the Railway Labor Act of 1926 that gave Biden and Congress the power to craft and impose a labor settlement was a golden opportunity to turn the battleship around and impose a vision that restores some of the balance between harried workers and their gold-plated bosses. Our so-called leaders lacked the courage to do that.
It’s a question of priorities. Yes, a work stoppage would hurt the broader economy for a time – because that’s what a strike is! A work stoppage – and public and political support for workers, even if they must walk the picket line – is a statement that a healthy middle-class life for employees is something our society values over corporate profits. And yet somehow this notion that human beings deserve to be treated better than machines can’t win majority support from either Republicans or Democrats.
There has been so much talk in the last six years about saving American democracy, yet there has been precious little conversation about what has gone so wrong with our political system that no party will stand up for the American worker. A healthy republic would have a minimum of one party that would make fighting for things like worker sick pay, or the right to organize, or a living wage its top priorities – a Labor Party, as one might expect in Europe.
To say that America lacks a true labor party is the political understatement of the millennium. Republicans may be getting more blue-collar votes, but only through exploitative culture wars, never by giving workers an economic break. Democrats seem determined to become solely the party of college degree holders – a losing formula when that’s only 37% of U.S. adults. That political gamesmanship has kept the spigot of corporate cash flowing for both Dems and the GOP, and left coughing, toothache-y employees out in the cold. Until that day when our workers finally realize how essential they truly are – and shut it down.