There is no other word for what the Democratic Party has just done to railworkers than betrayal. I am sorry, dear reader, if you don’t like to hear that.

I don’t think that’s how President Biden sees it. He’s a process guy, he got union leadership and the railroad companies to hash out a deal a couple of months ago, he thinks it’s fine and good. Historic even.

Only the rank and file did not agree. It was unacceptable to the unions representing a majority of railworkers. Biden seems to view this as workers reneging on his deal. That is bullshit. A deal is not a deal until the principal signs on the dotted line, not when some lawyer says it’s the best he could do. Sorry if you think it was your deal, Joe.

The deal was unacceptable not because railworkers are greedy. The “historic” raise in the tentative agreement will barely exceed inflation over the period of the contract. Railworkers are treading water on wages. The unreasonable commie militants seem just fine with that.

The dispute is over how railworkers are treated. Which, in a word, is like shit. For decades, the rail industry has been achieving “efficiencies” by in large part by dumping nonfinancial costs onto its workforce. It’s great when productivity increases because of some new invention: A construction firm buys a steam shovel, and becomes genuinely more efficient. It accomplishes the same work with fewer workers. But it’s a different thing entirely when the same firm buys a whip, and then is able to accomplish the same work with fewer workers by beating the crap out of those desperate enough to remain. Both get scored as “productivity increases” by statisticians, but the second one is a regressive transfer from workers to shareholders, not an actual efficiency. Railroads’ vaunted “precision-scheduled railroading” is the whip rather than the steam shovel. It puts ever fewer workers on ever longer trains, magnifying the responsibility and hazard each worker must bear. Railworkers are on call to be dragged from home for days or weeks 75% of their lives, and harshly penalized if life supervenes and they can’t show up. You try living that way.

The unions were asking for up to fourteen paid sick leave days, rather the one that the current deal provides. Fourteen was an opening bid. Had Congress actually done what Democrats only pretended they were trying to do, and included seven paid days in the Congressionally imposed deal, it would have been fine. Congress would have been taking away railworkers’ leverage to strike, but giving much of their very modest ask in compensation. Instead, Congress stole all of railworkers’ bargaining power and gave them nothing.

Pacino as Godfather offers Nothing.

Besides just how just plain wrong this is, Democrats are in real danger of repeating their 2016 hubris. Yes, no matter how many formerly Republican-ish affluent suburbanites Democrats pick up on abortion or concern about saving democracy — really important issues! — if the working class, the majority of our citizenry, continues to abandon the party, Democrats will lose, and they will deserve to. The party is riding high at the moment. Hey, they said inflation would kill us in the midterms, that our key issues weren’t “bread and butter”, but they were wrong! We did great (at least grading on a curve). But last month, Biden could still claim to be a pro-worker, pro-union President. Now, not so much. No matter how much historians tell us (grading on a curve!) he still might be the “most union-friendly President in history”, it becomes like Malcolm X and taking out the knife half way. The populist wing of the Republican Party — Marco Rubio, John Hawley, Ted Cruz — may never actually deliver the goods to workers, but for people who want to throw out the bums that just fucked them, the rhetoric (like Donald Trump’s before them) may offer just enough hope to win their votes.

All is not lost. As Steven Greenhouse and Harold Meyerson point out, President Biden can remedy this just by eliminating an exemption for railroads in an executive orders that already requires Federal contractors to offer workers seven days paid leave. Embedding social desiderata in Federal contracting requirements is a bad way to do policy. It imposes an “efficiency” wedge” from customers’ perspective between the private and public sector, discrediting government action. But in this case, with the railroad industry consolidated into joint duopolies that already behave extractively towards customers, little would be lost. Certainly there’s no reason this rapacious sector of our economy should be exempt from an obligation of Federal contractors in every other sector!

If you want to save democracy, or just do the right thing, let Joe Biden know. Railroads that wish to transact with the Federal government must meet the same obligations that bind every other industry. That means seven days of paid sick leave. Right this wrong, conspicuously.

Alternatively, freight rail is an essential utility that is not meaningfully regulated by competition. It is persistently extraordinarily profitable, and not a locus of technical innovation beyond shifting costs and risks to workers. Perhaps we should simply nationalize the industry.

Update: Here are my letters to Joe Biden and Marco Rubio on this issue.

Update History:

  • 2-Dec-2022, 9:45 a.m. EST: “…their the rhetoric (like Donald Trump’s before them) may offer just enough…”
  • 5-Dec-2022, 9:45 a.m. EST: “…a regressive transfer from workers to shareholders, not an actual a real efficiency gain.”
  • 5-Dec-2022, 12:10 a.m. EST: Added bold update with links to Biden and Rubio letters.

9 Responses to “Betrayal”

  1. Brett writes:

    I don’t think they’ll lose many workers or union support over this. Something the labor historian Erik Loomis pointed out on Twitter is that the engineers have tended to be pretty Trump-y in their political allegiance even before this, and their guilds have a long history of not working well with the rest of the labor movement.

  2. doug writes:

    Thanks for this. All the workers will notice this tossing of some workers under the train. This is not just about losing votes of RR workers. The D’s have become a second party of the rich. Labor has no voice, and capital rules in all aspects.

  3. Richard H Caldwell writes:

    Yes, Doug “capital rules, in all respects”. We have neared the end of the pendulum’s arc.

  4. Brian writes:

    Re: the engineers being Trumpy. The best response I’ve seen to this ridiculous comment is if you don’t want the engineers to be Trumpy, then provide them with their basic needs, like sick leave.

  5. nancy writes:

    Thank you. This needed to be said.

  6. Matt writes:

    Also re: the engineers being trumpy

    Another angle you may not be considering is there are other unions who just saw what happened. The thing about unions is they stick together.

  7. Detroit Dan writes:

    Good post, as usual. I learned about an issue that I’ve not been following.

    This makes me think that the Working Families Party is onto something.

    The Working Families Party of New York was first organized in 1998 by a coalition of labor unions, community organizations, members of the now-inactive national New Party, and a variety of advocacy groups such as Citizen Action of New York and ACORN: the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.[9] The party is primarily concerned with healthcare reform, raising the minimum wage, universal paid sick days, addressing student debt, progressive taxation, public education, and energy and environmental reform. It has usually cross-endorsed progressive Democratic and some Republican candidates through fusion voting but occasionally runs its own candidates.

    Maybe I should start a branch in Michigan, where they don’t seem to be active. Anybody have thoughts on this party?

  8. Zach writes:

    Someone should have made Biden watch this before forcing a deal.

  9. Zach writes:

    Also, the US should allow all Rail workers to opt for Soc Security at a level commensurate with what their railroad work would’ve allowed them to receive.

    And if they believe Qualified RR workers deserve more, they should get SocSec + some stipend regardless of whether they leave RR work before some arbitrary age.