Joe Biden Loves Trains, But Not The People Who Make Them Run
If Biden won't go all in for organized labor, he won't go all in for anything.
In 1992, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace workers, a powerful union representing employees for the East Coast freight rail network CSX, walked off the job, starting a lightning-bolt two-day strike that brought the United States’ rail network to a standstill. President George H.W. Bush acted as you would expect him to: pushing a crushing measure through Congress that banned strikes by railroad workers and lockouts by the railroad companies that employed them, passing the measure around 48 hours after the strike began. In the Senate, however, there were six voices of dissent. One of them was Joe Biden.
“It is a difficult decision to oppose this legislation,” then-Senator Joe Biden told Bush. “I am concerned about the serious effects of a continued shutdown of our Nation’s rail system on hundreds of companies in Delaware and across the country. But I am also concerned that we are rewarding a concerted decision of the railroads that would have caused fevered expressions of outrage by industry had the unions taken a similar step.”
Biden was referring to the four years of bad-faith negotiations by railway companies that led to the ‘92 strike. This was during his peak Amtrak phase — he began the speech by describing his commute from Wilmington to Washington via train. He was also a safe Senator four years out from re-election, putting his foot down in front of an unpopular Republican president in the midst of a billion-dollar-a-day crisis. It was the perfect time to act on principle, to establish his credentials as a staunchly pro-labor advocate in one of the highest offices in the land.
But a true test of someone’s principles is what they do when sticking to them isn’t convenient. Biden faced such a test this week. He did not pass.
The current looming strike is bigger than the 1992 action. Every single union that serves railway employees is united in negotiations that have once again stalled out as the railway bosses refuse to meet the core demands of some of the unions involved. A proposed compromise, which Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg helped broker, has been on the table since September, but has been shot down several times by some unions who say it still does not guarantee enough time off and sick days. These demands were central to the entire fight, and while some unions say the tentative agreement meets them, others do not; and so the strike is still on the table. At least it was, until former Delaware Senator Joe Biden stepped in on Monday.
“As a proud pro-labor President, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement,” Biden wrote. “But in this case — where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families — I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.”
It’s true that a rail shutdown would have disastrous effects on the economy, cost the federal government money, and hurt working people and their families. But that was also true in 1992. The difference now is that economic chaos would severely dampen Biden’s approval ranking. He would feel, in this case, the full brunt of sticking to his principles. It would be a hard call to make; there’s a case to be made that it would be the wrong one, if Democrats mean to keep any power for more than the next two years. But morally, it would be the right thing to do. It’s not the unions that brought us to this point; the blame lies squarely on the greed of the corporations who force their workers into economically unsustainable circumstances and refuse to bargain with them in good faith. But Biden is president now, and that means that when push comes to shove, the unions might not get their way. Moral values and solidarity might not win out.
It’s still too early to tell quite how this will all end. On Wednesday, the House pushed through Biden’s bill 290-137. An amendment proposed by Bernie Sanders in the Senate to salvage at least seven more paid sick days under the agreement looks to be on far less solid ground, squeaking through the House 221-207. Republicans, meanwhile, are sharpening their knives, using the crisis and Biden’s cynical decision to nuke the strike as a way to score quick points and bash unions at the same time. The question now appears to be whether or not enough Democrats in the Senate will vote against the bill if it doesn’t include Sanders’ sick leave bump to shoot the whole thing down. If they do, the strike is still on. It could be enormously costly for everyone involved. But it will also make it very clear which side every politician in this country is on. Clearly, Joe Biden has already made his choice.
Update, 12/1/22, 4:15 p.m. ET: On Thursday afternoon, Congress voted overwhelmingly to impose a contract on the rail workers without any paid sick leave. The strike has thus been blocked. Biden got his wish.