Betrayal of Railway Workers Ignites Working-Class Fury Toward Biden and Democrats

“Politicians are happy to voice platitudes and heap praise upon us for our heroism throughout the pandemic,” said one rail leader. “Yet when the steel hits the rail, they back the powerful and wealthy Class 1 rail carriers every time.”

By Jessica Corbett

U.S. rail workers and working-class allies are angry at President Joe Biden—the self-proclaimed “most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history”—and Democratic congressional leaders for betraying them this week.

Biden on Friday morning signed a congressional resolution that, under the Railway Labor Act of 1926, theoretically averts an economically devastating national strike by forcing workers to accept a White House-brokered tentative agreement—which was backed by eight unions but rejected by the four that represent the majority of the U.S. freight rail workforce.

The president, who is now under pressure to require paid sick leave via executive order, called on Congress to pass such a resolution late Monday. While progressives tried to add seven sick days to the deal, 42 Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) blocked it—a move some critics say outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) should have anticipated and refused to allow, either by focusing on a single resolution with paid leave or not voting at all.

Instead, as Jacobin‘s Luke Savage put it: “Democratic leaders are, in effect, declaring their solidarity with the American working class while actively siding with the very business interests they say are exploiting it. It’s a clear violation of fundamental labor rights and a concession to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has issued predictable pleas for Congress to intervene and prevent a strike ahead of the holiday season.”

Workers, organizers, and labor reporters warn that growing criticism of how Biden and Democratic lawmakers chose to handle the rail industry dispute could have long-term consequences for the president, who is expected to run again in 2024, and his party.

“This is a grave mistake and I hope the craven fools behind it reap every rotten morsel of what they have sown next time they want unions or working-class voters to lift a finger for them,” labor journalist Kim Kelly said of Biden’s directive to Congress, which she called “cowardly and shameful.”

“The actions speak for themselves,” Ross Grooters, a railroad engineer from Des Moines, Iowa, who co-chairs the advocacy group Railroad Workers United (RWU), told USA Today earlier this week. “Don’t tell me what you are. Show me what you are.”

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“He’s not stepping up for workers in the way that he should be,” Grooters said of Biden—whom others have blasted this week for effectively “saying that these essential workers have to suffer to preserve the profits of the railroad industry and its billionaire owners.”

Freight railroad conductor Gabe Christenson worked to get Biden elected in 2020—when the Democratic former vice president successfully ousted then-President Donald Trump, who infamously refused to accept his loss and recently announced his 2024 campaign.

“I have shirts from me campaigning—blue-collar Biden shirts,” Christenson told The New York Times earlier this week. “I knocked on doors for him for weeks and weeks.”

Since Biden’s move against rail workers on Monday, Christenson “has been besieged by texts from furious co-workers whom he had encouraged to support the president,” the Times reported. The conductor said of his angry colleagues, “I’m trying to calm them down.”

Christenson isn’t alone, according to the newspaper:

“Several union members and local officials said they had urged co-workers who had previously supported Donald Trump to back Mr. Biden, arguing that he would be friendlier to labor. They said that these co-workers had reached out to complain about what they saw as Mr. Biden’s about-face since Monday, though it was unclear how many of these union members had voted for the current president.

“Many Trump voters calling me out for endorsing Biden,” Matthew A. Weaver, a carpenter with rail maintenance employees union, said by text Tuesday night. Mr. Weaver previously worked as an official for his union in Ohio.”

Meanwhile, RWU leaders on Friday took aim at Capitol Hill, with the group’s general secretary, Jason Doering, declaring that “this one-two punch from the two political parties is despicable.”

“Politicians are happy to voice platitudes and heap praise upon us for our heroism throughout the pandemic, the essential nature of our work, the difficult and dangerous and demanding conditions of our jobs,” Doering added. “Yet when the steel hits the rail, they back the powerful and wealthy Class 1 rail carriers every time.”

RWU organizer Ron Kaminkow similarly said that “we have been played for well over a century by politicians and union officials alike. The fiasco of recent months will show that perhaps the time has come for railroad workers to push for a unified and powerful labor organization of all crafts, together with a political party that will better serve the interest of not just railroad workers but all working-class people.”

Willie Adams, head of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, pointed out that “Congress talks about ‘saving democracy’ at the ballot box, but they just totally undermined workplace democracy by imposing a contract that workers voted to reject.”

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“It is wrong to impose a rejected contract, period. Congress had the option to allow more time for the railroad workers to negotiate better benefits with their highly profitable employers, and they had the option to add paid sick days,” Adams added. “There’s no excuse for taking away workers’ collective bargaining rights. Congress failed America’s workers today.”

RWU Steering Committee Member Paul Lindsey, called out the carriers—whose trade group, the Association of American Railroads, opposed the effort to add seven paid sick days while supporting the resolution to impose the agreement on workers.

“The rail carriers are too powerful and are a scourge to the national economy,” Lindsey charged. “They need to be taken into public ownership and run in the interest of workers, shippers, passengers, and the nation, not a handful of wealthy stockholders.”

The Lever noted that “while opposing a plan that would have required them to spend $321 million to give workers seven paid sick days, the main railroad companies raked in more than $7 billion in profits and paid out over $1.8 billion in dividends, in a year where they and their lobbying groups have spent more than $13 million lobbying Congress—after railroad CEOs pocketed more than $200 million in compensation.”

ony Cardwell, president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED), one of the unions that rejected the agreement, told Politico that “what’s frustrating is that the railroads know that their backstop is federal government intervening in a strike.”

“The railroads would have come running to the bargaining table if they knew that we would have been able to go on strike. But they were reliant on the Congress stopping our strike, and therefore they bargained in bad faith,” said Cardwell, one of the union leaders who spent this week on Capitol Hill, trying to convince lawmakers to vote in favor of seven sick days.

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In a letter to lawmakers after the votes on Thursday, Cardwell thanked those who backed sick leave while sharing that the Senate’s rejection of the seven-day proposal “leaves me baffled, exasperated, and deeply saddened.”

Cardwell continued:

“The federal government inserted itself into the dispute between the railroads and the railroad workers under the premise that it must protect the American economy. Yet, when the federal government makes that decision, its representatives have a moral responsibility to also protect the interests of the citizens that make this nation’s economy work—American railroaders. That is, members of Congress were obligated to vote to pass paid sick leave for all railroad workers. The representatives were not obligated to protect the exceeding profits of the corporations. A number of members of Congress chose—yet again—to trample on the workers, in their rush to cozy up to the corporations.

It is shocking and appalling that any member of Congress would cast a vote against any sort of provision that raises the standard of living for hard-working Americans. In fact, such a vote is nothing less than anti-American, an abdication of their oath of office, and you are deemed, in my eyes, unworthy of holding office. I am resolved to shine a light on their votes over this issue, because all railroad workers deserve to know and need to know who will stand and fight with them for what is right and just. They also deserve to know and need to know those who are willing to put them in harm’s way to save their own political and personal self-interests.”

Noting that the House-approved sick day resolution would have been much closer to passage if the few Senate Democrats who didn’t vote had been there “and Manchin wouldn’t have screwed us,” Cardwell concluded in his comments to Politico that “corporations won today and the working class lost.”

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