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Citing the holidays, Biden and Congress make railway strikes illegal

Travis Cunha

Dec 27, 2022

The White House and Congress recently forced striking railway workers from four labor unions back to work. The unions had refused to accept a deal brokered by the US government in November. In response, President Biden demanded that Congress act to quell the potential for a larger railway strike that would disrupt the holiday season. On December 1st, the Senate voted 80-15 to approve a bill that essentially makes future railway strikes illegal. “The bill I’m about to sign ends a difficult rail dispute and helps our nation avoid what, without a doubt, would have been an economic catastrophe at a very bad time in the calendar.” 

The new law forces the railway workers to accept a contract proposed by the Biden administration that increases pay 24% over five years, caps healthcare premiums, and adds an insulting one additional day of personal leave. The contract lacks the additional sick days for railway workers that had ignited the labor dispute in the first place. President Biden defended his blatant strike-breaking measures, saying, “I know that many in Congress shared my reluctance to override the union ratification procedures. But in this case, the consequences of a shutdown were just too great for working families all across the country,” 

Biden has deemed the “consequences” to be too great for working families, but what will his decision mean for railway workers and their families? So-called “Union Joe” risks losing that undeserved moniker, even among supporters, as he takes every opportunity to betray the workers who the American economy running. Matthew Weaver, a railway carpenter, organizer, and legislative director representing Ohio in the country's third largest railway union, voiced his frustration with Congress to National Public Radio. “It's very frustrating," said Weaver, a railroad mechanic since 1994. "Here are America's essential workers, rail workers. We have no paid sick days. It's disgusting.”  On the same program, Amtrak rail mechanic Reece Murtagh expressed similar frustration with the president's hypocrisy: ”Joe relied on us to get him home to his family. But when it was his turn to help us better our life, he turned his back on us." 

In 2022, many different labor groups across the US and Europe went on strike or threatened to do so. Perhaps inspired by the railway workers, US airline and airport workers have also begun to push back against the bosses. On December 8th, thousands of employees from 15 airports went on strike to highlight their own struggles with management. Janitors, baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, and other airport staff picketed outside some of the nation's largest airports in Los Angeles, New York, New Jersey, Miami, and Phoenix. The striking airport workers are pressuring the Biden administration to pass Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey's “Good Jobs for Good Airports Act”, which would set a $15 minimum wage, guarantee paid time off, and include adequate healthcare and other benefits. The senator's bill comes during a period of turmoil. Covid-19 starting in March 2020 meant mass layoffs at airports. As travel restrictions have lifted and more people travel, staffing shortages have resulted in many terrible experiences for both airport staff and travelers alike. The “Good Jobs for Good Airports Act” would provide airline employees with pay and benefits comparable to that of other federally-contracted agencies. 

“Union Joe" and Congress may have averted a railway worker strike, but will they continue their crackdown as discontent grows in other sectors of the economy, for example among airline and dock workers? In his speech defending the decision to make railway worker strikes illegal, Biden highlighted the importance of preserving normalcy and the status quo this holiday season. As living standards continue to plunge for working-class Americans, president Biden would do well to listen to ordinary people like Dallas airport cabin cleaner Verna Montalavo, who said, “Without us, no one could travel safely to visit their families over the holidays. Seeing smiles on passenger’s faces gives me a huge sense of pride, but it comes at a huge cost when I can’t support my own family on poverty wages”. Instead, sadly, our government cynically used the holiday season to justify its strike-breaking "lawfare" against workers. The reality is that no matter the time of year, we can expect the Biden administration and Congressional democrats to continue making lame excuses for helping roll back the rights of American workers. 

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