Opinion | Biden’s dull rail agreement stresses worker solidarity

By Nathaniel Langley, Senior Columnist

Contracts are complicated. Legal jargon clogs and obscures what benefits workers receive. Additionally, negotiations favor supervising, greedy bosses instead of overworked, underpaid workers.

For railroad employees, contracts become negotiated conflicts against bosses and the government.

Likewise, the recent rail agreement illustrates American laborers’ perennial struggle for fair treatment: Regardless of a modest demand for one sick day, a “pro-union” president and his party prefer empowering managers over workers.

For unions and workers to reach fairness, it must be recognized that organization and depending on your fellow worker is paramount to trusting supposed national labor leaders/supporters.

The rail settlement hardly reflects an “agreement” between workers and managers. Rather, the imposed deal represents railways’ interests bolstered by rushed, hypocritical federal support.

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At the heart of the rail unions’ struggle stood sick leave. New York Magazine journalist Eric Levitz describes, “Unlike nearly 80% of U.S. laborers, railroad employees are not currently guaranteed a single paid sick day.” Levitz adds that to achieve a sick day, workers must use vacation time days before being sick — a prophetic act.

This refusal of sick time has had dreadful repercussions for rail workers. In June, Aaron Hiles, a union engineer, complied with his freight company to postpone his doctor’s visit — despite “feeling different.” Following his company’s new attendance policy — one unions contend is the “strictest in the nation” — Hiles was forced to prioritize attendance over health.

Weeks later, Hiles suffered a heart attack while in his company’s freight engine room.

His rail company and others’ response to his preventable death? Continue their commitment to withholding sick leave.

Simultaneously, Hiles’ corrupt company and others have recorded higher profits and, as Levitz accounts, “collectively doled out $146 billion in dividends and stock buyback.” Still, these railways choose greed over allowing basic benefits.

On December 1, Congress foisted manager-friendly legislation upon workers. Similarly, the legislation arrived before a Dec. 9 strike deadline for union employees.

This strike concern — rather than the agreements’ disregard for sick leave — became the government and media’s fixation. 

In September of last year, Biden proclaimed “I intend to be the most pro-union President leading the most pro-union administration in American history.” More than a year later, his “pro-union” administration and party brokered an agreement allowing only one sick day.

Still, not all representatives turned their backs.

A last-minute House effort from pro-union representatives raised sick leave to seven days. However, after it failed to reach 60 votes in the Senate, the agreement returned to its manager-friendly terms.

While most unions negotiate exclusively with corresponding management, railroads inhabit a pivotal position for the government. As Levitz notes, rail carries “40 percent of the nation’s annual freight. A single day without functioning freight rail would cost the U.S. economy an estimated $2 billion.”

Comprehending how crucial rail is for economic stability, Congress in 1926 supplied itself the power to intervene in rail labor disputes: The Railway Labor Act.

With its recent employment, the act is shown as a tool to shoot away workers’ requests. Moreover, Biden’s implementation reveals political hypocrisy and broken promises. During his 2020 campaign, Biden pledged “workers have at least seven paid sick days.” Furthermore, he labeled any lackluster sick leave “a national disgrace.”

Besides Biden’s disgraceful rail treatment, the media’s dismissal of union arguments underscores workers’ precarious position.

Amidst the last days before congressional intervention, CNN was possessed by a strike’s ramifications.

Coverage like “Businesses scramble to limit the damage of looming freight rail strike” and “This Morning,” co-host Poppy Harlow asking a union leader, “Do you believe a strike is worth it if it cripples the U.S. economy?” blocked union perspectives.

For Media Matters for America, Chloe Simon and Reed McMaster assert “coverage of the potential strike has often failed to contextualize the role of railroad corporations in the deadlock, and at times it has faulted the unions for the economic disaster a strike could lead to.”

Those such as CNN are inclined to stoke fear than explain why unions would be compelled to strike. Articles characterize the potential strike as “devastating” for business, yet neglect how rail greed despicably leaves those like Hiles dead in a freight engine room.

Thus, the real tragedy will be the hundreds of thousands of rail workers who carry on with one sick day.

A strike would’ve paused the economy, but if rail companies leveled with their workers, we wouldn’t be here: If rail companies prioritized their workers’ health and well-being, we wouldn’t be here: If we lived under the most “pro-union” president, we wouldn’t be here.

Where we’re at is a confrontation: Workers have only themselves to depend on. Those in higher powers — government, media and management — prefer the corrupt status quo over making workers’ lives better.

Locally, this is clear in the University’s ignorant treatment of the Graduate Employees’ Organization.

At their recent protest, GEO communications co-officer Savannah Wills contended, “it is really frustrating to be nearly nine months into bargaining and seeing almost no movement from the administration.”

While rail workers at least hoped a “pro-union” president would step in, those in the GEO depend on campus organization and solidarity to reach their fair share.

As learned by the rail workers, workers’ struggles won’t be solved by a miraculous helping hand. True power only arrives from vehement organization and dependency on one’s peers.


Nathaniel is a senior in LAS.

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