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Biden and the Railroads

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CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – SEPTEMBER 13: Workers service the tracks at the Metra/BNSF railroad yard outside of downtown on September 13, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. Metra, the largest rail service carrying commuters from the suburbs to downtown Chicago, said that it would be forced to suspend service on many of its lines if freight rail workers go on strike. In addition to the Metra disruptions in Chicago, Amtrak announced that it will temporarily cancel three of its long-distance, nationwide routes that run out of Chicago and rely on freight lines, citing a potential strike by the workers. Beginning Tuesday, the Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles, the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco and the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle will be suspended. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

My week was dominated by Biden invoking the Railway Labor Act, asking Congress to implement the deal he and Marty Walsh and worked out with the rail companies and unions back in September. Congress then did. There was an effort to include seven sick days in the contract, but Republicans naturally filibustered it, with help from Joe Manchin. So that’s where we are.

Left Twitter was furious. This was Joe Biden, Labor Sellout Democratic Neoliberal Pro-Corporate Hack. Now, it was not that. But that was the narrative. I took a different tact. I explained what was going on. I explained that nearly every president would have done the same thing and that many had or even worse. That made me a Labor Sellout Democratic Neoliberal Pro-Corporate Hack, not only to the Twitter left but a lot of labor historians who are on Twitter too. It was extremely frustrating. For those of you in the LGM community who think I am some unreconstructed leftist, please note that much of the left really despises me. Sometimes, it’s a little lonely out here for me as a writer and scholar.

I did a bunch of media stuff about it too, only some of which is out yet. The biggest thing was the Los Angeles Times with Gustavo Arellano, who by chance happens to be as close to a writing hero as I have. I told him that too. I was reading his Ask a Mexican column back when it was first published in the Albuquerque Pulse nearly twenty years ago and was like, who is this genius? Anyway, you can listen to the podcast here.

Biden did make some errors here. He should have paid more attention to this issue from the beginning and his mediation board should have taken the sick leave issue more seriously. It did not, Biden had to scramble, he forced one day on the companies, but that was all, and here we are. There are some down sides to this. I was talking to a friend who is deeply involved in the trucking industry and he was saying that the UPS drivers, who are going to strike next year, were asking what Biden was going to do to them. The answer is nothing–different labor law. But they don’t know that. Instead, they no longer trust Biden. How many of them were Biden voters to begin with was another question and that’s very true of the rail unions too. But still, it does reinforce some narratives that are a problem.

One thing that I spent a lot of time doing was pushing back on the idea that previous presidents acted better than Biden on this. They have not. In the popular labor narrative, both FDR and Truman tend to be as the real pro-labor presidents. These are deeply problematic narratives, but they really are nonsense when we are talking about Truman. He may have vetoed Taft-Hartley, but that’s only because it was soooo extreme. He was more than happy to sign a labor bill that went very far to limit labor rights, just not quite that far. And of course it was overridden anyway.

But in 1947, when Truman invoked the Railway Labor Act and rail workers went on strike anyway, Truman….called for Congress to pass a bill so all the strikers would be drafted into the military. His message to Congress included this:

As I stated last night, unless the railroads are manned by returning strikers I shall immediately undertake to run them by the Army of the United States.

I assure you that I do not take this action lightly. But there is no alternative. This is no longer a dispute between labor and management. It has now become a strike against the Government of the United States itself.

That kind of strike can never be tolerated. If allowed to continue, the government will break down. Strikes against the government must stop.I appear before you to request immediate legislation designed to help stop them.

The benefits which labor has gained in the last thirteen years must be preserved. I voted for all these benefits while I was a member of the Congress. As President of the United States, I have repeatedly urged not only their retention but their improvement. I shall continue to do so.

However, what we are dealing with here is not labor as a whole. We are dealing with a handful of men who are striking against their own government and against every one of their fellow citizens, and against themselves. We are dealing with a handful of men who have it within their power to cripple to entire economy of the nation.

Say what you want about Joe Biden, he isn’t calling rail workers a threat to the nation.

But this narrative is very strong. I respect Rick Perlstein a great deal, but this was just way off base.

Other than PATCO being an illegal strike, the labor movement urging PATCO not to strike, Reagan firing the workers, Reagan using it as a message to the private sector to bust their unions too, it leading to the rapid decline of strikes and a decades long war on workers, these two actions are exactly the same!!! To say the least, I was frustrated and spoke out about it. And then there was this:

Ah yes, the president who responded to the actual massacre of workers in 1937 by the steel industry by saying to reporters “a curse upon both their houses” and the president who busted the 1943 mine workers strike by sending in the military to run the coal mines. The Party of FDR indeed.

Look, there’s plenty to criticize Biden about here, but what a lot of this demonstrates his the hazy nostalgia much of the left sees about the supposed power of labor in the past compared to the present/ The problem with this is that it doesn’t stand up to even the first bit of scrutiny.

In conclusion:

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