Biden And The Train Strike: A Perspective

Like many I have become a huge fan of Heather Cox Richardson. Her daily email “Letter From An American” offers us a look at what is happening today with a historical perspective that lets us know that things don’t happen in a vacuum, but are often part of the continuum of history.

Friday’s letter on the rail strike once again showed how what we hear on the 3 minute news-at-the-top-of -the-hour reports often leave shallow and misleading impressions. So here are a few paragraphs from her Friday letter that give some background perspective on what went down:

This morning we awoke to news that rail carriers and union leaders had reached an agreement to avoid a national rail strike that would have badly tangled the supply chains that are just now starting to move efficiently again. That, in turn, would have affected everything from drinking water—the chlorine to purify urban systems is shipped by train—to consumer goods, costing up to $2 billion a day and likely sparking job losses and contributing to the inflation that has only recently begun to ease.

Like many of the victories President Joe Biden has celebrated during his term, this deal was complicated, requiring the administration to bring together a number of moving pieces. In the 1980s and the 1990s, the U.S. railroad industry consolidated into seven main carriers, which are now making record profits. In 2021, profits for the two largest railroad corporations in the U.S.—the Union Pacific and BNSF—jumped 12% to $21.8 billion and 11.6% to $22.5 billion, respectively.

But those profits have come from cost-cutting measures that included job losses from an industry that had remained stable for the previous 25 years. Between November 2018 and December 2020, the industry lost 40,000 jobs, most of them among the people who actually operated the trains, as the railroads adopted a new system called Precision Schedule Railroading (PSR). This system made the trains far more efficient by keeping workers on very tight schedules that leave little time for anything but work. Any disruption in those schedules—a family emergency, for example—brought disciplinary action and possible job loss. Although workers got an average of 3 weeks’ vacation and holidays, the rest of their time, including weekends, was tightly controlled, while smaller crews meant more dangerous working conditions.

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Thanks to the 1926 Railway Labor Act, Congress can force railroad workers to stay on the job, and that is precisely what Republicans proposed in this crisis: forcing workers to accept the recommendations of the PEB (Presidential Emergency Board set up for this negotiation – my explanation). This had political fire just two months before the midterms, as Republicans were trying to force Biden and the Democrats either to abandon the workers they claim to champion or to accept responsibility for a devastating strike. The railroads, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and business groups all favored this approach.

The administration put its weight behind negotiations, including not only three cabinet secretaries—Labor Secretary Marty Walsh (who is himself a former union official), Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack—as well as Director of the National Economic Council Brian Deese, but also the president, who worked the phones and got mad that management would not loosen scheduling rules. The details of the deal are not yet published, but it appears to have accepted most of the PEB recommendations on pay, given workers a day of paid sick leave—union leaders wanted 15, up from none—and, apparently, removed the penalties for missing time for illness or medical emergencies, one of the workers’ key demands. 

The deal is a big deal, but it has not yet been accepted by the union members, who will still be on tight schedules although they can now take unpaid time off for medical emergencies without losing their jobs. (My guess is that higher pay is intended to make this seem like a workable solution to the scheduling issue.) Initial responses to the agreement seemed mixed.

The deal does, though, highlight that Biden is using the power of the presidency to protect the American people while trying to be fair to labor and management, a system pioneered by Republican president Theodore Roosevelt and adopted afterward by Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Republican Dwight Eisenhower, among others. It’s a very different principle than the idea that workers should accept whatever conditions management imposes on them. 

Richardson’s historical perspective with data that expands the scope of what went on during negotiations gives a much deeper understanding of how difficult and important what the administration did was to the country.

Biden continues to solve major problems with sensible, rational solutions. From creating a huge amount of jobs, setting the country up for the future and wrestling with a worldwide inflation problem, the Biden administration is working for us like few administrations since FDR has. 

About Dave Bradley

retired in West Liberty
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