No Surprise, Historians' Open Letter on Railroad Labor Dispute Met Deaf Ears at White HouseRoundup
tags: strikes, labor history, railroad
Thomas Mackaman is Associate Professor of History at King's College (PA).
Scores of American labor historians last week signed an open letter to President Biden imploring him not to impose a contract on railroad workers against their will, and thereby outlaw the right to strike.
Biden called for congressional intervention last week after several unions voted down the contract worked up by his Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) in collusion with the rail corporations and unions, whose membership had overwhelmingly authorized a strike in the summer. Biden turned to Congress imposing the deal only after the rail unions’ bureaucracies proved incapable of forcing the rotten deal on the rank and file.
By Thursday, both houses of Congress had passed Biden’s proposed injunction, with near unanimous support from the Democratic Party delegation. The vote was a stark lesson in class politics. While Congress regularly stalls, indefinitely, any legislation that might in any modest way help working class people, when called on by Biden to strip workers of their democratic and human right to withhold their labor, Democrats and Republicans saluted, clicked heels, “reached across the aisle,” and made illegal the rail strike in near record time. So fast, indeed, that the vote was complete even as historians were still affixing their names on the open letter to Biden.
Though their letter is titled “Historians in Support of Railway Workers,” it is written from the standpoint of offering friendly advice to the Biden administration, to whom it is addressed. The letter expresses “alarm” at Biden’s “decision to ask Congress to impose an unfair and unpopular settlement,” which, it correctly notes, “constitutes a negation of the democratic will of tens of thousands of workers.”
Yet in spite of acknowledging Biden’s machinations, the letter portrays the White House as a neutral, and even friendly, arbiter in the struggle. Referring to anti-labor laws put in place long ago to curb the immense industrial power of workers in critical transportation industries such as rail, the historians write that “History shows … that the special legal treatment of rail and other transportation strikes offers the federal government—and the executive branch in particular—a rare opportunity to directly shape the outcome of collective bargaining, for good or for ill.” The letter goes on to cite one example each of “ill”—the federal government using the military to attack rail workers in the Gilded Age—and one of supposed “good,” when Woodrow Wilson acceded to the eight-hour day demand among rail workers during World War I.