It took four short days for “the most pro-labor president in history” to smash a looming rail strike at the behest of business. On Monday of this week, a coalition of over 400 business groups demanded that Congress take immediate action to prevent a railroad strike. In dutiful response, Biden issued a call for Congress to exercise its power to unilaterally end the strike threat and force through the railroad barons’ contract (while denouncing the railroad companies as profiteers in the same breath to save face).
It deserves emphasizing up front that Biden and the Democrats were in a bind of their own making. Biden could have easily avoided squashing a powerful workers’ initiative by imposing some bare minimum concessions on the railroad barons, one of the most profitable industries in the country. The fact that Biden demanded the shutdown of the strike while covering it with claims of neutrality is enough to make it clear that he is, in no meaningful, measurable, or visible way, a pro-labor president.
On Wednesday November 30, Biden’s bill to shut down the strike went to a vote in the House. The majority of House Democrats, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), Jamaal Bowman, Ilhan Omar, Cori Bush, and Ayanna Pressley, voted to force through the contract upon the workers. Rashida Tlaib voted against blocking the strike. The legislation to block the strike passed overwhelmingly in the House.
AOC and other members of the squad sought to give cover to their strike-blocking votes by sponsoring a separate resolution that would add seven days of sick leave to the contract they were forcing on railroad workers. (Railroad workers’ demands included 15 days of paid sick leave and a number of other demands, which were not included in Biden’s forced contract.) The additional resolution was voted on separately from the forced contract and would also require Senate approval.
The bill to block the railroad workers’ strike initiative then went to the Senate on Thursday, December 1. Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted that he would block the bill until a roll call vote occurred on guaranteeing seven paid sick days to railroad workers. He said nothing about respecting the right of the workers themselves to decide what kind of contract they would accept.
Predictably, the roll call vote in the Senate occurred and the separate bill to add sick days to the strike-blocking contract failed on Thursday December 1. Railroad workers, who voted as a majority to reject their bosses’ contract offer, were thus forced to accept it by decree of Congress. In the House, except for Tlaib, the Squad in its entirety voted in favor of imposing that contract. At this point, there is still the possibility of an illegal wildcat strike, though in the wake of Congress’s legislation, a wildcat is highly unlikely and could include consequences such as firings, legal action, decertification, and possible deployment of the police or national guard to impose Biden’s order.
How did this happen?
There has been some confusion, and some deliberate obfuscation, about what exactly happened and how such a defeat could have come to pass. Republicans are obviously enemies of workers. But Republicans are not the ones who put forward the strike-blocking contract and provided the necessary support for its passage—that was the Democrats.
It will not be surprising for Rampant readers that Biden would turn out to be an enemy of the labor movement. But how could the socialists elected to Congress support such an obvious attack on workers’ democracy and labor?
AOC has claimed she was simply following the wishes of the unions, citing Teamsters Local 202 in her own district, a union composed largely of produce industry workers. This claim is more than a little disingenuous, especially in light of the fact that a majority of rail workers oppose the tentative agreement brokered by the Biden administration. Indeed, that majority rejection is what demonstrated the reality of the strike threat.
Socialists fight to defend all unions against attacks by the bosses and the right. We also understand that union bureaucracies are quite often far more willing to sacrifice basic dignities and rights than the rank and file workers themselves, especially after more than four decades of business unionism that has grafted this pattern onto much of the labor movement.
That’s the context in which many of the railroad worker union officials have been attempting to force through a garbage contract against the demonstrated will of the rank and file. Railroad workers organized themselves to vote down the union leadership’s contract through rank-and-file organizations like the Railroad Workers United (RWU). As RWU organizer Ron Kaminkow put it, “We have been played for well over a century by politicians and union officials alike.” For AOC to cite the out-of-touch union minorities in order to force through a contract is cynical at best.
The RWU put it succinctly this morning: “Rail workers – like all workers – should have the right to bargain collectively and to freely engage in strike activity if and when the members see fit and when they democratically elect to do so.”
AOC also claimed she was just making the best of a bad situation handed to her by the White House. But in that case, why did she vote for the strike-blocking bill? The argument that the legislation would have passed anyway, and therefore opposition would just be symbolic and meaningless does not carry water.
The purpose of socialists in office, the reason they were backed by so many socialists and enthusiastic young workers, is precisely to bring public awareness to the fights initiated within the working class. If we have already given in to the logic of back-room dealmaking and Democratic Party loyalty for the sake of committee roles, those canvassers and organizers might as well have sat out the last few elections that saw the Squad elected. What’s the point of electing socialists to Congress if not to side with workers in this exact kind of situation, especially when it’s “symbolic”?
What are the stakes?
There seems to be a shared understanding in the recent flurry of media coverage that the key question here revolves around the additional bill proposing seven days of sick leave. In this narrative, adding the seven days of sick leave to the enforced contract would have made the outcome fair and just, and the very fact that the left wing of the Democratic Party attempted this shows they are champions of labor.
The additional sick leave bill was and is certainly needed by railroad workers. It was a key demand of workers and bitterly opposed by railroad corporations as it would be difficult to accommodate in their business strategy. But to invoke the attempt at adding sick leave to a contract being forced upon workers without their say is to miss the point entirely. You do not support workers by forcing a contract on them, no matter how palatable you try to make it. That is literally what bosses do.
Railroaders are some of the most powerfully-positioned workers in the country, and their rank and file had carefully prepared this historic opportunity to flex their power and win their rights. The strike itself could have been an irreplaceable historic experience of worker self-activity and solidarity, and could have contributed to the rebirth of a conscious, militant labor movement across many sectors. While Railroad Workers United were fighting for rail workers, calling for the nationalization of the railroads, and universal paid family and sick leave, Democrats in Congress, with the support of the entire Squad except for Tlaib, voted to force a contract on them in order to block the looming strike.
Such a blatant attack on workers is par for the course from the Democratic Party. But it’s quite shocking to see self-styled pro-labor socialists cut the legs out from under the first nationwide labor threat with serious structural power in decades. RWU has drawn the political conclusions, stating that “railroad workers need to explore options other than the existing two political parties since neither appears to have our backs.” Those who argue that the left has a future in the Democratic Party have to take responsibility for these facts of “really existing” capitalist politics.
The base of the Democratic Party is the ruling business class. That is why Biden acted swiftly to execute the demands of business leaders, and why the rest of the party fell in line immediately. The Democrats’ entire structure operates to housebreak any left-wing outsiders in their ranks. This time, it turns out, was not different.
At a certain point we have to ask ourselves if the future for the working class—people in industrial jobs like rail, but also those in nursing, education, food service, the unemployed, and the dependent—will be handed down through capital’s organizations at all. Time and again, through many struggles great and small, history shows that path to be a dead end.
Only workers themselves can build a future worth living in. Liberation does not begin the day after a revolution, it is a process of decades of learning through struggle, of showdowns with the bosses and the state. Our movements can only gain strength by learning the lessons of these struggles, through both victories and defeats. The first step is for the organized socialist movement to follow RWU’s example and abandon the framework of accommodating to capital, its priorities and its parties. It is time for workers to start relying on ourselves.