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Is Joe Biden The Best President Unions Have Ever Had? And If Not, Why Not?
Talkin' about the railroad.
As the nation faced a rail strike last week, the Biden administration sprang into action. It had many reasons to do so. First, a rail strike could break already stressed supply chains. The economic impact might lead to much higher prices at a moment when the media desperately wants to report on inflation in a way that compares Joe Biden to Jimmy Carter, which for a certain generation of reporter and Beltway hack is what a Democrat always is. Second, a rail strike could make the administration look weak, flailing in the face of a few workers holding the nation’s economy hostage. That they have legitimate complaints would likely disappear in media coverage of the strike, which would again just blame it on the White House.
But Biden also engaged with this labor situation because he really believes in labor unions. Biden’s political career has shifted significantly over the years. He’s always been a middle-of-the-party kind of guy. When the party has moved right, he’s moved right, and now that the party has moved back to the left, he’s moved left too. That’s fine, I guess; it’s a politician for you.
However, Biden does have deep-seated values and they include the value of a labor union. Despite governing over a deeply divided nation and, on issues like unions, no small amount of division within his party, Biden has used a significant amount of political capital supporting unions. This is remarkable. No other president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has ever used that much capital in supporting organized labor. Moreover, the only reason FDR could do this is because he had enormous majorities in both the House and Senate that allowed for legislation to get through the usual alliance of Republicans and Dixiecrats that would forestall anything to help working Americans. Biden doesn’t have that, and yet he is doing whatever he can to help unions.
To be clear here, the railroad workers have more than a few legitimate claims to their grievances. While they get paid well — and even before the Biden administration intervened the negotiations had led to agreement on a significant pay raise — working conditions are horrible. What’s amazing about this entire thing is that the companies refuse to provide even unpaid sick leave to workers. They simply force workers to labor through illness or anything else with significant negative consequences if they take time off. It’s absolutely ridiculous. The rail companies have already reduced the number of workers on a train to two, and want to reduce that to one. That’s insanely irresponsible for safety reasons, for workers and for anyone else along train tracks. But it’s all about profit, even at a time when the rail companies are raking in money hand-over-foot.
Biden could have just abided by his Presidential Mediation Board, which worked out the pay raise but initially let the employers keep their terrible sick leave policies. But he did not. Seeing the future strike coming, he went beyond the board and really laid into the railroad companies for what are basically human rights violations. He forced them back to the bargaining table with Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh playing the lead role in working this out. The workers did not get everything — for you and me, we’d probably find the still very limited sick leave not acceptable. The workers still have a lot of gripe about. But this was a significant victory for the rail unions. Workers still have to vote on it, but at least two of the four unions that were set to strike — and most importantly, the two largest ones — have seen leadership decidedly on the side of ratifying this deal. We’ll see what happens over the next couple of weeks on the vote.
This all leads to another question: How many presidents would have done what Biden did? The answer is, I think, very few. Many of the major strikes in our history have revolved around transportation networks. Because transportation workers have the ability to shut down large parts of the economy in the way a teachers' strike or nurses' strike or grocery store strike does not, they tend to lead to more presidential intervention.
The difference between Biden and most other presidents, though, is that through most of American history, the actions of presidents have been to just crush the union. In 1877, railroads forced workers out on strike in West Virginia after reducing pay for the second time in a year; soon the Great Railroad Strike swept the nation as a general protest against the dominance of the railroads over the lives of Americans — polluting them, killing them on the job and in the cities, dominating the economy through corruption, laying them off. President Rutherford B. Hayes sent the military to crush it, turning a nonviolent strike into a bloodbath.
In 1894, the Grover Cleveland administration did much the same with the Pullman Strike. In this case, Eugene Debs’s American Railway Union issued a boycott of the railroads in solidarity with workers striking in the railway car company town of Pullman, Illinois. The Attorney General, Richard Olney, was himself a railroad lawyer who illegally continued his railroad work while serving as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. Not surprisingly, Olney convinced Cleveland to once again send in the military to crush the union and kill strikers. Debs was jailed and converted to socialism while in prison, shocked that the nation had so failed its founding principles when it came to workers’ rights.
More recently, Ronald Reagan responded to the air traffic controllers strike in 1981 by firing all the workers. It is true enough that this strike was illegal, and the controllers are no heroes of labor. They expressed no solidarity with all the other airline workers thrown out of work due to their strike. They wanted to strike and they did, consequences be damned. But Reagan had many options besides just firing them all. This terrible moment, the greatest disaster in American labor history, ended a tumultuous decade of American labor activism. Strikes plummeted and the private sector quickly learned the message that they could fire all their union workers too.
At times, though, presidents who did not even like organized labor have acted on the side of workers to get the economy up and moving. This was the case in 2002 when George W. Bush intervened in a lockout against the longshoremen on the West Coast by forcing the companies back to the table. While Bush had no love of the longshoremen or unions in general, there were more important things at play here for him — the economy, the war on terror. So workers do have a lot of leverage in these situations, if they can get the politicians to treat them as legitimate actors and not unions to be destroyed.
The overall history makes Biden look pretty good. But I think there’s one additional point to be made here. The rail unions are notoriously conservative and have been for over a century. Biden didn’t do this because he necessarily expected the rail unions to repay Democrats in the fall. This is MAGA union country, and for a lot of rail workers, listening to their NRA propaganda means a heck of a lot more than anything Joe Biden does. Some might vote against the agreement just because they hate Biden so much.
No, Biden did this because he believes in union power, even if those unions don’t necessarily support him. That’s been at the core of Biden’s actions toward unions through his entire presidency. That’s what motivated him to engage in an unprecedented intervention in the 2021 Amazon election in Alabama by sending a public message reminding that workers have the choice for a union and calling out Amazon by name. That’s what has motivated him to empower Walsh and Vice President Kamala Harris to chair a taskforce to see how the administration can increase union power through executive action, which is necessary given the hostility of Congress and rightwing courts.
Is Joe Biden the best president unions have ever had? It’s a bit early to make such claims. But the competition is very limited. He might be. That is worth noting, both to remind ourselves just how hostile the federal government has been toward unions — this very much includes recent Democratic presidents, especially Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, but also Barack Obama to some extent as well — and just how important Biden finds unions to rebuilding the working class in America.
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