On December 1, at President Joe Biden’s urging, Congress adopted legislation to block a rail strike and bind freight rail workers to a collective bargaining agreement that tens of thousands of them—including the majority of workers in four of their unions—had voted to reject. A last-minute effort to pass companion legislation that would have addressed the disgruntled workers’ demands for paid sick leave (the agreement guarantees only one sick day per year) passed the House of Representatives on a party-line vote, but failed to gain the sixty votes necessary to overcome a Senate filibuster.
In the aftermath of the averted crisis, observers in the mainstream media and business press generally hailed Biden’s performance as a victory for his administration, asserting that he had rescued a fragile economy from a devastating shutdown that would have created a “Christmas catastrophe.” Many railroad workers and their allies disagreed, with one calling Biden’s intervention an “outrageous insult” to the union workers Biden had pledged to protect. Notably, however, the vast majority of union leaders, even those who expressed the most anger about the Senate’s failure to approve added sick days, refrained from criticizing Biden or challenging his stark framing of the choices before him.
While understandable, labor’s failure to criticize Biden for stripping the right to strike from railroad workers was a missed opportunity to engage in the kind of delicate maneuver that the civil-rights movement mastered during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations: pushing a friendly president to do more for his allies than he otherwise might be willing to do.
Labor’s criticisms could have begun with the way Biden falsely framed the crisis as a choice between two options, one distasteful and the other disastrous: either Congress had to force the workers to accept the flawed agreement that his administration prodded their leaders into tentatively accepting on September 15, 2022—an agreement which had since been rejected by several of the unions—or a prolonged rail walkout would plunge the economy into chaos. A strike would threaten to deprive communities of chemicals necessary to ensure clean drinking water and farms of feed for their livestock, Biden declared. The danger was so stark, he insisted, that it would be wrong for Congress to even try to improve the deal by adding sick days to it because “any changes would risk delay and a debilitating shutdown.”
Biden’s framing of the issue was intended to make his chosen course of action seem inevitable when he actually had other options. One would have been to allow the rail workers to make use of the only real leverage they have in their negotiations with the freight carriers—collective action—knowing that he had the power to stop a strike as soon as it truly threatened the larger economy. Even if the workers walked out for only forty-eight hours, they could have demonstrated how essential their work is, educated the public on the problems they face, and strengthened the hands of those in Congress who sought to add sick days to their deal.