How the possibility of railroad strikes can shift the future for workers across America
This past month, over 115,000 railroad union members threatened to strike over inhumane working conditions, nearly causing a nation-crippling economic crisis. Though averted for now, the potential for worker outrage still burns hot. Unions are combating a new attendance policy put into effect by major railroad corporations wherein worker absences could mean termination. Under this, workers could be on call for weeks at a time, working 80-120 hours per week, unable to even attend doctor’s appointments.
The unions reached a tentative deal after President Biden interfered. They requested a raise and a more flexible schedule, consisting of a minimum of 15 paid and assigned sick/vacation days. President Biden granted them a 24% raise and a singular paid day of allotted time off. As for their other unassigned days off, the workers could “be penalized for taking days off when they’re sick or tending to a family emergency,” according to Eleanor Mueller of NPR News. Biden’s refusal to grant the workers even half of their request left many workers ready to stoke the fire of the strike. If it happens, this strike would be the first railroad strike in over 30 years, and no matter which direction this stalemate goes, it will set a precedent.
In an age of “quiet-quitting,” a vocal proletariat class, and a polarizing two-party system running the government, life turns on a dime, and everyone has a voice. American High’s own teachers’ union representative, Mr. Howard, recalls executive handling of strikes in the past and how a similar effect may occur today.
“When Ronald Reagan was president, [his solution] to the [Air Traffic Controllers Organization Strike] was to nationalize the air traffic control profession by breaking the union and sending the military in to do their job. Now, if Biden wanted to, he could make it illegal for the railroad workers to strike and bring in the military… But this would be devastating for unions across the country because it would set the precedent that the government is against workers standing up for their rights and will intervene to the extent of breaking their union, which, if you can’t [have the threat of] a strike, there really is no point to a union.”
Mr. Howard’s concerns about the government’s suppression of union voices have already taken form. For example, Biden’s use of the Defense Production Act. In June 2022, prompted by a spike in oil prices, the railroad unions began their stand against their employers. Fearing a further spike in prices and a potential oil crisis, Biden administered an executive action that ordered the expedition of oil across the country from the U.S. Petroleum Reserves. Unfortunately, a majority of the media seemed to narrow in on the positive aspect of this action, being that oil prices would not skyrocket further, ignoring the perspective of the unions’ fight in the context of Biden’s initiative.
The unions were originally leveraging the instability of oil across America in their strike, which, coupled with public frustration over exorbitant gas prices, served to create a powerful force against railroad employers. In using the Defense Production Act, Biden not only increased the circulation of oil across the country but also strong-armed the unions out of their original strike threat by making the prospect of an oil shipping shortage seem less harmful.
“This is a big win for America,” Biden stated after the union leadership accepted the deal on September 15. However, Biden’s aggressive use of the DPA in June and this lowball deal left many workers disgruntled, having rejected a preliminary version of the same proposition in August with an astounding 78% disapproval rate. Many are still unhappy with the deal; the workers are still on call 24/7, and after the dust settles, the workers will return to near-identical working conditions if they agree to the current terms.
Railroad corporations, specifically Union Pacific and BNSF, cite a lack of funding to account for 15 days of paid time off. Using this statement, Republicans in the Senate tried to pass a bill to force unions and their workers to agree to Biden’s deal, but Vermont senator Bernie Sanders rebutted this on the U.S. Senate floor, stating, “[The corporations] made 20 billion dollars in profits last year. They provide their CEOs with huge compensation packages… Last year, the rail industry spent over 18 billion not to improve rail safety, not to address the supply chain crisis in America but to buy back its own stock. And hand out huge dividends to its wealthy stockholders.” Union Pacific and other railroad corporations have published no response at this time.
The push to not persuade but force the unions to abide by the deal once more displays the potential for a precedent of the “government [being] against workers standing up for their rights,” as Mr. Howard remarked. Regardless of whether both parties come to an agreement, or the workers force action by shutting down 40% of the nation’s supply lines, an effect will be felt at home; whether it comes in the form of a shift in the voice of unions and workers rights, or markups at the local Walgreens.
Professional Air Traffic Controllers Union strike against poor working conditions. President Reagan fired all strikers after their refusal to return to work. Heralded to be one of the most oppressive acts against the progression of the working class, interference from Biden today could lead to another such upheaval. August 5th, 1981.