"Amtrak Joe" Leaves Rail Workers in the DustBreaking News
tags: unions, strikes, railroads, Joe Biden, labor history
Kim Kelly is an independent journalist, author, and organizer whose writing on labor, politics, class, and culture has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Nation, the New York Times, elsewhere. Her first book, Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, is out now.
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.