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The Establishment Railroads the Working Class

Establishment Republicans sided with President Biden and Democrats against rail workers.

Labor Activists Rally Outside The U.S. Capitol Building In Support Of Rail Unions

Last week, President Joe Biden and establishment Washington railroaded 115,000 rail workers.

The Senate voted by a wide margin to impose a major labor agreement between railroad companies and a dozen unions last Thursday. Biden has celebrated the agreement, a product of an emergency board appointed by the president to resolve the dispute back in September. The agreement, partially reached by the parties and then imposed by Congress and the president, isn’t all bad, but some rail workers feel that Biden's promise to be a pro-worker president was just him blowing smoke. 


The agreement facilitated by the White House gave rail workers a 24 percent pay raise over the coming years, and annual $1,000 bonuses. Back raises and bonuses dating back to 2020 will give the average rail worker $16,000 within 60 days, according to the Association of American Railroads. The agreement also included a freeze on health care costs, among other things. Biden’s proposal, however, did nothing to address rail unions' number one concern: paid sick days, which provided the impetus for a potential strike in the first place.

From the start, unions representing rail workers demanded 15 days of paid short-term sick days. Four-fifths of workers in the United States are guaranteed short-term paid sick days of some kind, but rail workers are given none. Nevertheless, the railroad companies continued to argue that rail workers are given sick leave through the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act, which gives workers 26 weeks of partial pay after a waiting period. But labor unions correctly responded by pointing out that the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act is perceived and utilized as short- to medium-term disability coverage; it is not used for the seasonal flu or the common cold. In practice, the existing system tends to make rail workers use vacation time to recover from an illness. As is the case with most jobs, vacation time must be requested in advance. It is a completely inoperable system when a worker wakes up with the flu, Covid-19 symptoms, or any other seasonal illness.

When railroad companies refused to budge, unions threatened to strike.

The Biden regime’s compromise? Give rail workers raises and other benefit adjustments, which railroad companies could afford thanks to record profits, and address the workers’ primary concern by offering one additional personal day per year and removing work attendance disciplinary penalties for medical issues. 

Four of the 12 unions remained determined to get some kind of concession on paid sick leave, even if it was just a handful of days. In an economy with relatively high levels of inflation, raises simply aren’t as attractive to labor as they once were. Eight of the 12 unions decided to ratify the deal, but without unanimous consent, the deal could not go through. If one of the 12 unions decided to go forward with the strike, originally scheduled for December 9, the other 11 would be compelled to honor their decision to strike—which is why Congress was called to act on Biden’s proposal.


Under the Railway Labor Act of 1926, Congress has the authority to intervene and impose new labor contracts for railroads and airlines when the National Mediation Board fails to produce a workable agreement.

When the agreement came up for a vote in the House, representatives voted in favor of the agreement, but separately voted for one major change: seven days of paid sick leave. When that provision came up for a vote in the Senate via amendment, however, just six Republican senators—Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and others—joined almost all the Senate Democrats in voting in favor.

The 52 votes in favor of seven days of paid sick leave were not enough to get the amendment past the Senate’s filibuster. The Senate then quickly moved forward to approve the whole agreement, 80 in favor, just 15 against. Thirty-seven Republicans joined 42 Democrats and Independent Maine Sen. Angus King in favor of Biden’s agreement, which failed to give rail workers the sick leave they asked for.

Five of the 15 no votes came from left-wing senators, Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren among them. The other ten came from Republicans—the aforementioned trio of Hawley, Rubio, and Cruz were joined by others such as South Carolina's Tim Scott and Arkansas’ Tom Cotton. 

Some of the Republican objectors believe the failure to intervene on behalf of workers was a major missed opportunity. Democrats were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Either Democrats could oppose Biden’s proposed deal, thereby undercutting his already weak presidency, or support the deal and risk the ire of unions essential to Democrats’ political operation. It was the perfect time for Republicans to put their money where the party's mouth is and substantively demonstrate the GOP is the party of the working man, both culturally and economically. They failed miserably.

A statement from Missouri's Sen. Hawley said the vote on Biden’s labor agreement was, “a chance for Republicans to stand up for working people and against the DC establishment. They missed it,” Hawley said. “The Senate had the chance to stand up for railroad workers who frequently risk their lives and health on the job, just trying to support their families. Instead, the Senate sided with Joe Biden. Workers were asking for a handful of sick days per year. Biden and the Senate said no.”

When The American Conservative reached out to Hawley for further comment, the Missouri senator said, "The needs of America’s working class should be a priority, not an afterthought. It is not just good politics, it is a moral imperative that Republicans take the demands of America’s workers seriously, and advocate for them in Congress.”

Sen. Rubio would also admit Republicans missed their chance to exhibit the working-class bona fides they like to tout during election cycles. But in a recent op-ed for TAC, Rubio said he also “saw echoes of problems I’ve seen across the economy,” throughout the labor dispute.

“It reveals the out-of-date and out-of-touch nature of our current collective bargaining system. Maybe, over time, it will prompt workers to seek alternative means of representation,” Rubio said.

By “alternative means of representation,” Rubio was referring to labor negotiations, but the principle extends to party politics as well. Trump was able to swing working class and blue-collar voters, especially in crucial swing states, over to his side in 2016. His message was simple: our political and economic elites conspire against the common man. But the party that surrounds Trump has struggled, or outright refused, to embrace that message. 

Nevertheless, despite the GOP’s failures to pursue the good for the working class, these voters remain ripe for the picking. Trump’s message is increasingly vindicated with every day that passes, as the ties between the Democratic Party and corporate America become even more obvious.

The Democratic Party today is an upper-class party, acting on behalf of professional-managerial elites and not the working class. They don’t just refuse to represent the working class’s interests, but actively seek to displace the working class by moving their jobs overseas or importing workers that better match Democratic sensibilities.

The working class has suffered for far too long under the status quo, and Republicans must create a politics that once again sees and hears the men and women that made America great in the first place. They must ensure that the working class's dignity is respected in the private sector and the public square, and must foster fair markets, fair practices, and fair wages and capable of supporting strong families. It is simply the right thing to do, and the people will reward them for it.


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