And now he and his party are making a mockery of both claims. Biden brokered a deal between unions and rail companies that was unacceptable to the workers. They voted it down. Now, instead of respecting the results of a democratic election, Biden asked Congress to use the power of the federal government to force workers to accept the deal. The measure flew through Congress, passing the House on Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday.
The right to go on strike is a foundational right for workers in a free society. If the companies don’t want the rail workers to exercise that right, they should offer them a better deal. Instead, our “pro-labor” president, echoing an argument previously made by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says that the risk of economic disruption is too great to respect the workers’ democratic decision.
The House voted to add an amendment to grant one of the workers’ key demands—seven annual sick days, but the amendment failed in the Senate. Perhaps it would have failed even if it had received President Biden’s enthusiastic support, but that support wasn’t forthcoming.
Echoing what Biden said in his original statement, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated after the House vote on the amendment that the president “does not support any bill, or amendment, that will delay getting this bill to his desk by this Saturday.”
The current contract guarantees exactly zero days of sick leave, never mind paid vacation, and some of the companies have extremely punitive policies for taking days off for any reason. For example, Jacobin’s Luke Savage reports that at Warren Buffet’s rail company BNSF, “workers are allotted a point balance that diminishes if they’re unavailable for work—even in cases of illness or emergency.” Workers who reach a zero balance once are suspended, and terminated if it happens again.
The human consequences of these policies are grim. One worker giving a testimonial about why he voted “no” on the proposed contract, Dave Manning, said, “People just want to see their kids, you know maybe make a few more memories.”
Holding up pictures of his own son, Manning noted that “my kid’s grown” and he didn’t have a “whole lot” of memories with him growing up. He voted “no” to give workers whose own children are younger now a chance to do better.
As awful as those conditions are, though, the statement that a vote to suppress this strike sends to the entire American working class is even more important. Even if the sick days amendment had passed the Senate, the key point is that the workers aren’t being allowed to decide for themselves when the contract is acceptable–and without that amendment the conditions being imposed on the workers are atrocious.
It’s no surprise that so few of the supposed “populists” in the MAGA wing of the GOP could bring themselves to vote for an amendment to add a few sick days. That amendment passed the House over nearly unanimous Republican opposition. Three Republicans voted for it and 207 voted against it–including some of the Trumpiest Republicans in the House. Matt Gaetz voted “nay.” So did Marjorie Taylor Greene. So did the overwhelming majority of Republicans in the Senate. That’s one more nail in the coffin of the already absurd idea that there’s been any sort of meaningful partisan realignment on economic issues. The party of Reagan is not now and never will be “the party of the working class.”
But that’s to be expected. Getting mad at Republicans for voting against letting the proles have sick days is like getting mad at a dog for chasing squirrels. It’s what they are.
What’s more disturbing is that, while they softened the blow by voting for the sick days, almost all of the House progressives voted to stop the rail workers from going on strike. AOC voted “Yea.” So did Ilhan Omar, Jamaal Bowman, and Ayanna Pressley. The only one of the “Squad” to stick to her democratic socialist principles and vote “Nay” was Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib. Bernie Sanders also voted “Nay” in the Senate.
AOC justified her vote as part of a strategy coordinated with union leaders to get through the sick leave amendment, but that’s a weak defense–and not just because the idea that the amendment would get 60 votes in the Senate was always pretty dubious.
The core issue of principle could hardly be more basic. Workers in a capitalist society have very little structural power. It’s far easier for Buffet to replace any particular worker at BNSF, for example, than it is for that worker to replace their job. The only way for workers to have a meaningful say in their working conditions is through a process of collective action—which is meaningless if they don’t have the option of going out on strike until their employers come up with an offer they find acceptable.
The same power imbalance spills over into the political sphere. If a random rail worker calls their senator, he’ll be lucky to get a five-minute conversation with a college intern. If Warren Buffet calls, he’ll probably get the senator himself. So it’s no surprise that popular opinion tends to count for very little in policy areas where measures to help the working class face stiff resistance from wealthy business-owners.
Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, providing universal health insurance, and making it easier to organize a union, for example, all poll extremely well, but there’s a 0.00 percent chance that any of the above are going to get 60 votes in the Senate any time soon.
And that’s why the message Democrats are sending is so dangerous. The only possible avenue for American workers to exert their will in the political process is for organized labor to start throwing around a lot of weight in the workplace—if we had militant, 1930s-style strike waves, that might be enough to alarm politicians into thinking they had to throw some serious bones to the working class, but it’s hard to see what else would get it done.
The reason that workers’ collective ability to grind the wheels of the economy to a halt is such a potent weapon is precisely because it would lead to massive disruption. In using the power of the state to quash a potential rail strike while assuring workers that of course they want them to have more time to spend with their families, Democrats, even in the party’s progressive wing, are sending a message not just to the rail workers but to the entire working class.
The message is that Democrats are only “pro-labor” until the point when it causes serious inconvenience—which is also the point at which labor could accomplish anything real. They’ll express verbal sympathy for the workers’ complaint, and perhaps even toss them a favorable amendment, but they won’t tolerate working people exercising the only real point of power they have in the system.
Of course, they promise that they will try their very best to improve conditions for workers through the legislative process. Just wait a few more years. Maybe after the next election things will be different. Or the election after that.
Don’t hold your breath.