By BOB BUSSEL and MARCUS WIDENOR, Professors emeritus, University of Oregon
At President Biden’s urging, Congress recently imposed a contract settlement on the nation’s railroad workers. This “victory” for the Biden administration reveals sobering truths about our times: the unchecked exercise of corporate power, the reluctance of a pro-union president to stand up aggressively for workers, and the union movement’s hesitation to act in solidarity at a critical historical moment.
Railroads occupy a vital yet controversial place in our history. Although they enabled the U. S. to become an industrial power, their rise was marked by political corruption, a disregard for safety, and bitter conflict with workers and their unions. To bring greater stability to labor relations in this essential industry, Congress passed the Railway Labor Act in 1926.
The Railway Labor Act was the first comprehensive piece of legislation governing collective bargaining in the United States, granting workers and unions rights they hadn’t enjoyed before. However, it created multiple hoops that unions would have to jump through before they could go on strike, including mediation, arbitration, and special Emergency Board procedures. The law also granted Congress the power to impose settlements to prevent work stoppages. Over the years, these speed bumps have limited the leverage of railroad unions by tying them up in procedure.
Fast forward to the current railroad conflict, which was caused by a new generation of railroad bosses behaving badly. Abandoning decades of public oversight, Congress began deregulating the railroad industry in 1980. Over time, this resulted in significant consolidation, higher shipping rates for customers, and huge corporate profits.
Today, seven carriers control more than 85% of the freight rail market. Many railroads are now owned by hedge funds and large financial institutions, whose interests differ sharply from those of rail-dependent communities, customers, and railroad workers.
In recent years railroads have imposed a “Precision Scheduled Railroading” management system that stretches workers while, as one shipper has noted, “lines the pockets of executives and shareholders.” Fatigued by extreme stress caused by an on-call system that severely limits time off for family or personal reasons, railroad workers fear for their own safety and the safety of the public. As Oregon Representative Peter DeFazio, Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure lamented last May, in “an industry where an inch in the wrong direction can cost you your life or limb,” the new system is “as dangerous as it is unconscionable.”
After two years of negotiations on a new contract, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh helped negotiate a tentative agreement that raised wages but failed to address those scheduling and leave issues. When four unions rejected the tentative agreement, a nationwide strike loomed. Fearing an economic catastrophe, President Biden urged Congress to avert the strike by imposing the tentative agreement. House Democrats granted his wish while also approving a second bill providing for paid sick days. As expected, the Senate rejected the sick days proposal, leaving the principal concerns of railroad workers unaddressed.
When questioned by reporters, President Biden boasted that he negotiated a contract no one else could negotiate and insisted he would continue to fight for sick days for “all workers.” Top union leaders expressed muted support for the railroad workers, perhaps reluctant to challenge a union-friendly president or support a strike that might harm other workers and alienate the public.
Rail unions themselves must address internal challenges that weaken them in negotiations. They often exist on the outskirts of the union movement and lack a strong presence in most state or local labor councils. And the Railway Labor Act’s preference for negotiations by smaller, craft-based unions over larger industrial structures makes achieving rank-and- file unity more difficult.
A national railroad strike would have had serious effects. Still, it might have been possible for the president to exert pressure on the railroads by permitting a brief strike and putting his authority behind the workers’ just demands. The rest of the union movement could have visibly demonstrated its solidarity and educated the public about what was at stake.
Once again, we see an arrogant industry with a “public and workers be damned” attitude emerge unscathed and workers’ sacrifices during the pandemic go unrewarded . At a time when the strike has been revived as a powerful working-class weapon, Congress’s depriving workers of their right to strike contradicts the spirit of our times. Writing in The New Yorker, John Cassidy described the derailed strike as an example of “modern American capitalism” that ‘prioritizes payments to wealthy stockholders over everything else, including serving the public interest.” The failure of the president, political leaders, and the union movement to fully support railroad employees was a missed opportunity—not only to stand up for workers but also to tell the railroad industry that its business model is unacceptable. If labor’s rallying cry “when we fight, we win,” is to be more than rhetoric, we must be prepared to put up a better fight.