Why Must Congress Railroad Unions?

Common sense should say that Democrats like Joe Biden would side with labor. But when the stakes get high, they side with elites.

Jack Sierputowski
Mercury Staff

Now that the U.S. government has shut down the upcoming railway strike, it creates a dangerous precedent against workers’ rights everywhere, particularly endangering young people.

You may have heard about the upcoming railroad strike that could “cripple” the U.S. economy. The chief complaint: railway workers want paid sick leave, and railway companies refuse to meet their demands. But the media paints this issue as one of stubbornness and recklessness on the part of labor, when really, they should be affixing that blame on railway companies. Now that the government has crushed this strike, it creates a precedent harming workers’ rights everywhere and particularly endangering young people and college students.

Railroad workers are not currently guaranteed a single paid sick day, which has been the argument between railroad companies and workers for months. Biden’s brokered agreement in September included a pay increase but only one paid personal day, which unions rejected. Now, Congress has approved legislation to force unions to accept the bill, and with Biden’s signature, the threatened Dec. 9 strike is illegal.

We could talk about the fact that Congress made this happen using the Railway Labor Act, a nearly century old law that dates back to a time when the country’s transportation scape was entirely different. But this isn’t a legal article, and I don’t want to get into the weeds with the specific mechanism that our government has used to bludgeon the people. I want to get into the motive.

So why don’t railroad companies want workers to have paid sick leave? The reasons are numerous and industry specific. Mainly, railroad companies keep profits high by maintaining an incredibly rigid schedule so that the total number of workers can be minimized. What they don’t seem to consider is that unlike trains, human beings don’t run on tracks. That stressful work environment has caused the railroad industry to hemorrhage employees, which creates a vicious cycle as it makes the original staff shortage even worse.

There is a clear way to end this cycle. If companies created a better work environment (for example, one with paid sick leave) more people would want to join staff and be more productive in general. But railroad companies won’t give in, because God forbid their profit margins suffer. This is a story that anyone who has ever worked a minimum wage job is already familiar with. And if the government feels comfortable stepping in on the rail industry, who says they won’t back the CEO at the top of your food chain? Clearly, the government feels empowered to side with the person who already holds the threat of poverty over your head like a hammer.

When mainstream sources like ABCNews and the New York Times cover the topic, they choose to emphasize how the strike could hurt the economy, rather than how an intense and exploitative work environment is already hurting railroad workers everywhere. For one, the New York Times emphasized the fact that the strike “could cost the economy an estimated $2 billion a day and hurt consumers.”

According to CNN, a coalition of Democrats opposed to the shutdown emphasized the fact that guaranteeing railway workers seven days of paid leave would only cost $321 million a year in an industry that made $21.2 billion in just the first three quarters of 2022. That is less than 2% of their total profits.


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So what costs more money? Giving railroad workers the bare minimum of paid sick leave? Or allowing them to strike, which would upend the nation’s entire supply chain just before Christmas?

Certainly, it would be much easier and more cost effective for the railroad companies to just capitulate and give workers leave. Sure, they might take a small hit to their profit margins, but they are literally already millionaires, and having sick leave would create a more attractive work environment to fix the aggressive cycle of staff shortage. Most importantly, it would avoid doing massive widespread damage to virtually every part of the economy through supply chain disruption. Note that even though this damage would be entirely on the part of the railroad companies, essentially all reporting on the topic blames it on the unions. Instead, they dragged their feet until the man stepped in.

Democrats claim to stand with the people, but even centrist Biden blows them off when they really need him. Sure, if the railroad companies refuse to be reasonable, the economy will suffer. But what about the workers, the people who run the economy with aching joints and bleeding knuckles? They do so much work in the supply chain that the average person doesn’t even think to think of, because it happens so smoothly that the consumer doesn’t notice it. And Biden acted against them.

You may think this doesn’t affect you. Maybe you work food service, or landscaping or some other job that seems worlds away from railways. You may not see why those seven paid sick days are so important. But the danger here lies in the precedent set by the government shutting down a critical strike. It is only natural that this pave the way for a future pattern of neglecting workers’ rights and favoring elites.

This precedent endangers college students in particular – the young and the broke – who often must work low-paying jobs to support themselves. If you’ve ever been trapped in a toxic work environment because you had no other options and no bargaining power, well, get used to that feeling. Because our government has made clear that it will side with the people on top. This decision will tremendously affect the culture surrounding labor in an era that already sees weaker union activity than ever.

Contact your congressman. Make your discontent heard. Do your part to help labor.


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