Biden and the Train Strike: A Perspective

Like many, I have become a huge fan of Heather Cox Richardson. His daily e-mail “Letter from an American” offers us a look at what is happening today with a historical perspective that lets us know that things do not happen in a vacuum, but are often part of the continuum of the story.

Friday’s letter on the rail strike has once again shown how what we hear in the 3-minute newscasts at the top of the hour often leaves superficial and misleading impressions. So here are a few paragraphs from his Friday letter that give some background perspective on what happened:

This morning we woke up to the news that rail carriers and union leaders had reached an agreement to avert a nationwide rail strike that would have severely entangled supply chains that are only just starting to function effectively again. That, in turn, would have affected everything from drinking water – chlorine to purify city systems is shipped by train – to consumer goods, costing up to $2 billion a day and likely causing lost businesses. jobs and contributing to the inflation that only recently started to ease.

Like many of the victories President Joe Biden has celebrated during his tenure, this deal was complicated, requiring the administration to piece together a number of moving parts. In the 1980s and 1990s, the US rail industry consolidated into seven major carriers, which are now making record profits. In 2021, profits of the two largest railroad companies in the United States, Union Pacific and BNSF, jumped 12% to $21.8 billion and 11.6% to $22.5 billion, respectively.

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

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Thanks to the Railway Labor Act of 1926, Congress can force railroad workers to stay on the job, and that is precisely what the Republicans have proposed in this crisis: force workers to accept the recommendations of the PEB (Presidential Emergency Board set up for this negotiation – my explanation). It caught political fire just two months before the midterms, as Republicans tried to force Biden and Democrats to either abandon the workers they claim to be defending or accept responsibility for a devastating strike. The railroads, the United States Chamber of Commerce, and business groups all supported this approach.

The administration threw its weight behind the negotiations, including not only three cabinet secretaries – Labor Secretary Marty Walsh (who is himself a former union official), Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Agriculture Tom Vilsack – as well as National Economic Council director Brian Deese, but also the chairman, who worked on the phone and got angry that management did not relax planning rules. Details of the deal are yet to be released, but it appears to have accepted most of the PEB recommendations on wages, given workers a paid sick day – union leaders wanted 15, against none – and, apparently removed penalties for time lost due to illness or medical emergency, one of the workers’ main demands.

The deal is significant, but it has yet to be accepted by union members, who will still have tight schedules, even though they can now take unpaid time off for medical emergencies without losing their jobs. (I guess the higher salary is intended to make this seem like a viable solution to the scheduling problem.) Early responses to the deal seemed mixed.

The deal, however, underscores that Biden is using the power of the presidency to protect the American people while trying to be fair to workers and management, a system pioneered by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt and later adopted by the Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Republican Dwight. Eisenhower, among others. This is a very different principle from the idea that workers must agree to whatever conditions management imposes on them.

Richardson’s historical perspective with data that expands the scope of what happened during the negotiations gives a much deeper understanding of the difficulty and significance of what the administration has done for the country.

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

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