President Joe Biden, who I voted for (what a surprise), stepped into a labor dispute between railroad companies and the unions representing railroad workers. In September he helped broker a compromise labor agreement that prevented a rail strike, but that deal was ultimately voted down by four of the 12 unions that represent about 115,000 railroad workers.
With a strike deadline looming this month, Biden, along with the help of Congress, stepped in again, this time passing a law forcing union members to accept a deal they were against.
Biden, who calls himself pro-union and pro-labor, undermined the primary source of union power against corporate monoliths: the power to collectively say no.
A rail strike would have resulted in serious consequences. Railroads haul about 40 percent of the nation’s freight, and a strike would cost the economy an estimated $2 billion a day, in the loss of 700,000 jobs, and plunge the country into a full recession. No one wants that.
But would the owners of capital be blamed for the negative consequences if the unions went on strike? No. Unions, Democrats, and the Biden administration would be blamed. It would have been political hell.
Unions in decline
In 1954, about 35 percent of workers in the U.S. belonged to a labor union. Today, that number is around 10 percent, due to a variety of factors including traditionally high-union-represented manufacturing jobs moving overseas and labor laws that favor employers.
Despite the imperfect record of unions—they are as ripe for corruption and malfeasance as any other organization—I believe more union representation is needed. In a capitalist system short on regulation and lacking robust union membership, labor is inherently exploited by capital—hire as few as possible, pay as little as possible—in order to help maximize profits.
Railroad companies have gotten that strategy down. In the past six years, major railroads cut nearly one-third of their workforce—about 45,000 jobs—and instituted stringent workload and attendance rules to keep the trains running on time. Engineers and conductors are on call 24/7. Railroads are currently experiencing record corporate profits.
Feeling sick today?
The demanding schedules make it hard for workers to ever take a day off, and the rail unions have been pushing for the railroads to add seven days of paid sick time for workers. That has been the main sticking point in the impasse. The corporate heads have refused, stating that unions have agreed over the decades to forgo paid sick time in favor of higher wages and strong short-term disability benefits.
Therefore, railroad workers currently don’t have guaranteed paid sick time and have to use vacation time instead. Catch Covid? Enjoy your vacation. Doctor’s appointments? We all want to spend vacation days in waiting rooms. Even missing work for the parent/teacher conference or seeing your kid’s school play can end up costing you vacation time.
Many companies, unionized or not, have gravitated toward one bucket of paid time off (PTO), meaning that both your vacation days and sick/personal days all come out of the same pool of days. If you have a bad year, if your parent dies or your child gets sick or you do, or those meager weeks of paid maternity/paternity leave aren’t enough, or your car breaks down and you can’t get to work that day, you have to start chipping away at your vacation time. Just when you might need a vacation the most, you might not have the days for it.
For the railroad workers, Congress voted on an amendment to the labor agreement that would specifically add seven days of paid sick time the union wanted for its workers. The amendment passed the House and failed in the Senate, not mustering the 60 votes needed, giving the win instead to corporations.
In the past few years, interest in union membership has grown again, as evidenced by unions earning the right to represent workers at a number of Starbucks and Amazon locations. Baby steps, but essential, because capital will always exploit labor. It’s the nature of the system, and is reinforced by our government.