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Biden, Congress, and the Squad Just Voted to Block a Rail Strike. Workers Should be the Ones Who Decide

The Biden administration called on Congress to undemocratically impose a contract on rail workers across the country and avert a nationwide rail strike. The deal has already passed the House with unanimous support from Democrats. This latest maneuver by a “proud pro-labor President” shows that there is no such thing: the state acts in favor of the bosses to protect their profits.

Madeleine Freeman

November 30, 2022
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Image: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Image

On Monday, the Biden administration signaled to Congress that it should subvert the ratification process and impose a contract on rail unions, preventing a nationwide freight strike in December. With the rail companies and other titans of capital clamoring in the press and behind closed doors about lost profits and economic catastrophe, the politicians on Capitol Hill are jumping into action to prevent what would be the most significant national display of strength by a single sector of workers in many years. 

A mere 30 minutes after Biden’s announcement, Democrat Nancy Pelosi promised that the House would rush to vote this week on a bill to force the unions to accept a contract brokered by the Biden administration and that the Senate would vote on the bill shortly after. 

On Wednesday, the House overwhelmingly passed this horrific sell-out of rail workers — only eight Democrats voted against the two bills that make up the deal. The initial deal offered no sick days for workers. The second included seven, which the Progressive Caucus is lauding as an achievement despite the fact that rail workers are demanding 14 sick days. With only one exception, the entire progressive “Squad” voted yes on the initial deal, despite their messaging that it was bad for workers. The entire Squad voted yes for the resolution which included seven sick days, unanimously voting for a bill that still didn’t meet the workers’ full demand.

This move by Biden and Congress is a massive betrayal of the over 115,000 rail workers who have been organizing for months to fight against the bosses to win their demands. The Democrats, for all their posturing as representing the oppressed and exploited, have demonstrated once again that they have no interest in fighting for workers. It shows that Biden, a self-proclaimed “proud pro-labor President,” is nothing other than a loyalist bending the knee to capital at the expense of workers’ living conditions.

For more than three years, workers have been fighting for better pay and healthcare, but also, crucially, for paid sick leave and changes to scheduling and staffing so that workers are no longer forced to work grueling hours. Currently, workers receive no sick days, and many have no time to spend with family or to rest and take care of themselves. These policies have deadly consequences for the people who work the railways. In June, a 51-year-old engineer died of a heart attack on a train after being forced to delay a doctor’s appointment. Yet, because giving workers paid time off threatens to eat into their profits, the railroads have refused to move on these and other demands. In response, workers have rejected bad faith agreement after bad faith agreement and have been prepared to strike since the summer.

Biden’s maneuver isn’t the start of government interference in the rail workers’ contract negotiations. Acting under the powers of the anti-worker Railway Labor Act of 1926, the government has meddled in contract talks for years. As soon as a nationwide railway shutdown became a possibility this summer, the administration jumped into action. Biden formed the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to track the negotiations and help broker a deal. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh met with the bosses and the workers at the bargaining table to try to make progress in the negotiations and prevent the worst-case scenario: a national rail strike that would grind the transport of goods and potentially hundreds of thousands of businesses to a halt.

The tentative agreement that Congress is now likely to enforce was brokered by the Biden administration in September. It offers certain concessions to workers that the bosses were not initially keen to put forward, but it does not address workers’ central demands. As one example, it provided just one sick day per year, while workers are demanding fifteen.

While eight of the twelve unions involved in the negotiations agreed to accept the contract, four unions, which collectively represent 55 percent of rail workers, rejected it. With the mandatory cooling off period set to end in less than two weeks, workers are ready to strike as soon as December 9. The unions involved in the bargaining have agreed that if the contract is not ratified unanimously by all twelve unions, they will all strike together. This determination to fight is an encouraging sign: it is the reason the Biden administration and Congress – Democrats and Republicans alike – are now moving mountains to force a contract. 

Just before Biden’s announcement to ram through a deal, he received a letter from a coalition of more than 400 companies urging the government to intercede on their behalf. Biden – with hollow sympathy for workers and a hypocritical reluctance to “override ratification procedures” – is dutifully acting to preserve corporate profits and prop up a tenuous economy. For their part, the heads of the Democrats and Republicans are falling into line by supporting the measure and acting together to make sure the rail negotiations favor the bosses.

In a perverted reversal, a handful of Republicans are trying to bolster their standing with labor by decrying Biden’s decree as an attack on workers but they don’t support the demands workers are actually making. Despite their anti-establishment rhetoric, the Republican Party is staunchly anti-labor, as their record makes clear. Indeed, Republican leaders are working hard alongside Democrats to avert the strike. Other Republicans have signaled over the past several months that they would vote against imposing the current tentative agreement so they can broker one that is more favorable to the rail companies. Many of the 129 Republicans who voted against the bill in the House did so for this very reason.

For their part, several progressive Democrats – including AOC and Jamaal Bowman – came out against Biden’s call to impose the contract as it stands, pointing to the fact that the deal does not meet workers’ demands. Bernie Sanders said that the deal does not go far enough. He has called on Congress to ensure that provisions are added to address concerns about sick days and staffing. 

Yet, when the time came for the vote in the House, AOC and Bowman both voted to pass Biden’s sell-out of the rail workers, alongside many other members of the Squad. Yet again, the fresh-faced, progressive Democrats have shown themselves to be wolves in sheeps’ clothing. They may drape themselves in progressive rhetoric – a few even call themselves socialists —  but they just sold out the working class and actively undermined class struggle. Even with the additional provisions for sick days, they voted to subvert workers’ democratic right to decide the terms of their contract and to make matters worse, voted on a contract that goes against workers’ demands.

The question is not whether Congress should fight for slightly better provisions in a state-approved contract. Fundamentally, it should not be up to Congress to dictate what goes into a contract and whether workers can strike or not; allowing Congress to supersede the democratic rights of workers to ratify their contracts tramples the basic protections that working people have won through decades of struggle. Despite their pro-worker positioning, even progressive Democrats fell in line behind the rest of their party and organized against workers to avoid a strike at all costs.

What happened this week is further evidence that worker power is not being built in the halls of Congress. In fact, worker power is being categorically dismantled there. This latest sell out of the working class is one more piece of damning evidence in a towering pile that chaining the workers’ movement to a party of the bosses is not just a dead end, but one that leads to the defeat of workers’ efforts. There is no way to justify the strategy of organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America which convince their members and supporters to spend time, money, and political energy to get “democratic socialists” elected to Congress. Less than a month after they “got out the vote” for progressives in the midterms, the progressives have sold out the workers movement. AOC, Bowman, Ilhan Omar, and the rest of the Squad just voted to break a strike.

For capitalist politicians, averting the strike isn’t about the toll a railway shutdown or lockout would take on working families. It isn’t about businesses shutting down, leaving workers without jobs. It isn’t about inflation. These are just lies meant to turn public opinion against rail workers and their determination to win better conditions. What Biden, Congress, and bosses across the United States are actually worried about are the billions in capitalist profits that would be lost if rail workers withhold their labor, as well as the example that a nationwide strike would set for the rest of the working class.

Congress is acting with uncharacteristic speed to enforce Biden’s contract on over a hundred thousand workers and attempt to quash a strike. This is an unequivocal attack on workers’ rights. It flies in the face of everything workers have been fighting for over the last three years. And though it is a particularly egregious example of anti-worker legislation, the Railway Labor Act is not the only one of its kind. Workers across the country face similar no-strike clauses and anti-strike laws that stand in the way of fighting for better living and working conditions. 

Workers can harbor no further illusions that Biden is a “pro-labor president” or that the Democratic Party fights in the interest of the working class. It is clear that this system is built to protect U.S. imperialist profits, not to ensure better conditions for workers. 

Nevertheless, the power remains with the rail workers. They do not need Congress’s permission to strike. Their success lies in their continued determination to fight and to remain uncowed by the maneuvers of a government that works on behalf of the bosses. This means breaking with the logic that the Democratic Party and the institutions of the U.S. state can be a vehicle to fight for better conditions, a logic that is upheld at the highest levels of union leadership. To win needed sick days and better staffing, to win living wages and quality healthcare, these workers can hold no illusions that relying on capitalist politicians is anything other than an alliance with their enemies.

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Madeleine Freeman

Madeleine is a writer and video collaborator for Left Voice. She lives in New York.

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