If you find yourself strolling past the Highland Lawn Cemetery in Terre Haute, Indiana, this week, don’t be frightened by the sounds of anguished moaning: that’s just labor icon and railwayman Eugene V. Debs rolling in his grave because someone swung by and broke the news that the Great Railroad Strike of 2022 was just cut off at the knees by “Amtrak Joe,” the most “pro-union” president in recent memory. The founder of the American Railway Union, who left school at fourteen to scrape out a living on the Terre Haute railyards before becoming one of our greatest socialist fighters, Debs knew firsthand how the robber barons thought of him and his soot-streaked coworkers. “They are in the capitalist class; you are in the working class,” he wrote. “They gouge out profits; what’s left you get for wages. They perform no useful work; you deform your bodies with slavery. They are millionaires; you are paupers. They have everything; you do everything. They live in palaces; you in shanties. They have abundance of leisure and mountains of money; you have neither. Finally, they are few; you are legions!”
Those legions of railroaders from Debs’s era have since turned to dust, but their successors still live, breathe, and break their backs along the same rails that drove their forebears into paupers’ graves. Their fighting spirit remains. So has the need to stand up against the current generation of robber barons like multibillionaire Warren Buffett, whose BNSF Railway raked in $6 billion in profits last year. All of the major railway companies have been making money hand over fist, but they’ve remained hostile to workers’ demands for better working conditions, including paid sick days, even though, as Matthew Cunningham-Cook and Rebecca Burns write in Jacobin, the total, industry-wide cost of such a benefit—roughly $321 million—would amount to “less than half the amount that a single railroad tycoon, Warren Buffett, funneled to his family foundations last week.”
Everything old is new again, from the tribulations of railwaymen to the biliously greedy rail bosses and feckless politicians standing between them and a shot at a decent life. We even have a president who’s been compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt for his pro-union speechifying, but whose actions in the interest of the American workers have fallen short—perhaps never shorter than when he signed a bill last Friday imposing a labor agreement on rail workers that the majority of them had rejected.
The biggest labor story in the country right now concerns the great railroad strike that wasn’t, the federal intervention that killed it, and the president at the center of it who built a political career off of his love for union workers but blinked when they needed him most. There have been months of excellent reporting on the situation, so I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow. There have been a lot of cooks in this particular kitchen since the jump. There were already twelve unions with over one hundred thousand members between them, multiple railroad companies, and a whole caravan of lawyers involved before the Biden administration appointed a federal mediations board last summer to hammer out a new union contract. Wages were on the table, but the major sticking point for union members was time: they wanted the ability to visit the doctor without penalization, less stringent attendance policies, less capricious scheduling, more control over their time on and off the job. The tentative agreement that was reached in September was approved by eight of those unions, though the margins were slim, and voted down by the remaining four (whose members make up over 55 percent of rail labor). A strike seemed not only possible, but nearly certain.
That is until Congress, urged on by the Biden administration, voted last week to intervene, forcing railroaders to accept a federally negotiated contract that included significant wage raises but did not address the workers’ biggest demand: paid sick leave. When an amendment granting workers seven paid sick days was introduced, it passed by a bipartisan vote in the House but was shot down in the Senate by Republicans plus Democrat Joe Manchin (himself a modern-day coal baron). Biden congratulated the politicians on averting a potentially catastrophic strike that would have inflicted a great deal of economic pain on the country, particularly on the railroads’ owners. The workers were less impressed. They felt they had been betrayed.
It’s complicated, to be sure. Yes, union leaders were involved in brokering the deal, and some supported the tentative agreement. Yes, eight of the twelve railway unions voted to accept it. At face value, it may have seemed like the president was trying to help; surely, that’s how he and his team have tried to spin it. In story after story, news segment after news segment, the Biden administration and their business-friendly boosters pushed the narrative that a rail strike was just too risky; the workers were too important, their labor too essential to withhold. We can’t risk the economic impact of the strike, let alone in the weeks before Christmas, they cried, conjuring images of empty stockings and bereft tykes waiting in vain for Santa Claus. They forgot to mention that railroaders have children too. But the gears of capital demand their grease, and that grease is made of the sweat and blood of working people. The rail bosses desired their pound of flesh, and so Joe Biden threw on a white apron and served it up on a silver platter.
This moment has been three years in the making, though its roots go back much further. Over the last six years, the nation’s major freight carriers have slashed their workforce by 30 percent and tossed their remaining workers to the meat grinder known as PSR, or precision-scheduled railroading. Under this system, which aims to cut costs and maximize profits by using fewer workers to move more freight, workers are forced to work harder, and oftentimes, alone. The skeleton crews that have become common post-PSR run workers ragged and leave them no room to call out if needed. Instead, they’re on-call 24/7. “You have fewer workers doing more work faster,” Ross Grooters, a locomotive engineer and cochair of Railroad Workers United, said during a recent panel hosted by the Real News Network and Haymarket Books. “It is unsustainable, and it is not the kind of conditions that we can continue to work under and guarantee a functioning safe supply chain.”
One could argue that the aftershocks of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the Pullman Strike of 1894—massive rail worker uprisings that resulted in federal intervention—are still being felt right now. So is the 1926 decision to pass the Railway Labor Act and carve out a special side channel for railroad workers (and later, airline workers) to work out their labor disputes while effectively removing their right to exercise their power to strike. The workers already had a tough row to hoe going into these negotiations, and as things heated up, panicked rhetoric around the potential costs of a strike did not help. “A lot of people felt strong-armed by the process, by pundits and politicians, and felt that there wasn’t a chance to do better,” Grooters explained in a recent interview.
It has long been agreed that the labor railroad workers provide is extremely important to the U.S. economy and that their ability to keep commerce flowing renders them essential: around one third of all U.S. exports and 40 percent of long-distance freight by volume are transported by rail. If one were being logical, one would then assume that these particular workers should constitute one of the highest-paid and best-treated workforces in the country, that their health would be held up as a matter of national interest. Any sensible person would agree that they should, at the very least, be able to take off work when they fall ill or are injured. No one wants to think about what may happen if the person driving a freight train is battling a nasty respiratory illness that keeps them from concentrating on the track, or is so fatigued that they can barely keep their eyes open. (We’ve all seen the movies—it’s not good.) But the railroads are not run by sensible men.
Railroaders do have vacation days, which is a better deal than many American workers can claim. They’re not upset about that part of the deal. Having that time off to rest their bones is essential for such a strenuous occupation; they’ve more than earned those days off. But the thing about vacation days is that one is typically required to schedule them far in advance, and the boss can deny them at will. That foresight is an integral part of the overall planning needed for a worker to enjoy a scrap of leisure in this pitiless world. The rail bosses’ assumption that workers can simply tap into their store of vacation days whenever they get sick is lazy at best, and cruel in practice. Anyone who’s worked the kind of job where someone will very much notice if you don’t show up knows that taking a sick day can already be a bit of a hassle. (We’re not Europeans, for god’s sake! Can you imagine if people could just take time off whenever they needed it?) Rail workers wouldn’t know, though. They don’t have any sick days—not a single one.
They have been grudgingly granted three unpaid days per year to use for scheduled doctors’ appointments. But workers must give thirty days’ notice if they want to use one of those, so there’s no wiggle room for emergencies or unexpected illness. When is the last time the flu gave you thirty days’ notice? When you buried your grandmother, did the old gal first give you a full month’s warning before drawing her last breath? Unless you are possessed of a truly formidable level of clairvoyance, how would you be able to plot out exactly when your little daughter will break her arm on the playground during recess? If your spouse finds out they have cancer and they need you to scoop them up from the doctor’s office, do you reckon they’ll have remembered to tell you to put in for a vacation day first? The risk these essential workers face continues to be magnified as the pandemic staggers on, and they cannot predict exactly when Covid-19 will weasel its way into their airways or, worse, take up residence in their lungs. How many more fatal heart attacks are too many? How much is a railroader’s life worth?
These workers are not perfectly-wound automatons, crafted in a Swiss watchmaker’s attic. They are people, made up of blood and guts and respiratory systems; many of them have to care for other, often smaller and weaker, people. It is inhumane to expect any of these people to make the choice between going to work sick or injured and further damaging their own health (and potentially their coworkers’) or risking the loss of a decent-paying job during a time of deep economic uncertainty. The same goes for every worker, by the way. The United States remains the only wealthy nation in the world that does not have a national paid sick leave policy for its workforce; nor does it offer paid parental leave (though it does have one of the highest rates of maternal mortality).
Perhaps the congresspeople who voted down that modest allowance of seven sick days have forgotten what it’s like to get sick without the immediate guarantee of care, time off, a chauffeur, and a salary that can itself guarantee endless deliveries of bone broth and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. These petty, gluttonous tyrants who are inexplicably allowed to rule over the rest of us have forgotten what it is like to suffer or worry or want. Of course they would vote against any measure that would upset their friends in the railway boardroom—why wouldn’t they? For them, pretending to care about working people is an election year’s game. Now that the midterms are in the rearview, they’ve already dropped the pantomime and moved on to planning their own winter vacations. After all, they’re expected to work—at most—a full fifteen days this December. The poor lambs must be positively exhausted.
Amtrak Joe earned his nickname by regularly riding the rails as a passenger. The man loves trains, he’ll tell you—loves them! Big fan! A train guy, he’ll say. The Amtrak station in Wilmington, Delaware, is named after him, and the president’s name is engraved on the first sign that greets you when you walk down the stairs from the platform. Biden probably loves that as much as he loves trains. Yet, during one of the most consequential moments of his presidency, he sided against the people who run those trains and chose to throw the full weight of his administration behind their bosses instead. He decided that keeping the trains running was worth throwing the workers under their wheels.
“You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now the capitalists use your heads and your hands,” Debs once counseled. He may as well have been speaking to today’s railroaders, who have been abandoned by the Democrats and are outright despised by Republicans. He knew then what so many of us understand now: the capitalist class won’t save us, nor will their pals in Congress, and all of them would prefer to continue making their bread from our bones. It’s time to starve them for a change.