Ryan Wynn ’23
“I’m so sick and tired of companies breaking the law by preventing workers from organizing. Pass the PRO Act because workers have a right to form a union. And let’s guarantee all workers a living wage”—President Joe Biden, State of the Union (2023)
On the evening of February 7th,, President Joe Biden espoused support in his State of the Union address for the unionization of workplaces in a period where hegemonic employers are continuously curtailing the rights of workers. Through the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), there would be an expansion of measures to guarantee workers’ ability to organize a union for collective bargaining. Biden’s statement during the State of the Union emphasizing his support for safeguarding working-class Americans evokes a rallying optimism for the future of unionization and workers’ rights. However, Biden’s recent reputation among crucial labor movements undermines the façade of a robust union President.
Throughout 2022, a conglomerate of railroad companies and twelve national unions representing rail workers continued intense negotiations that initiated in November 2019. Rail workers demanded an increase in wages, the modification of the railroad’s strict attendance policies (This system required rail workers to be ‘on-call’ at all times and have the ability to report to work within ninety-minutes to two hours. Additionally, the system is based on a point-value so workers would be deducted ‘points’ depending on their response time)1 and paid sick leave among other issues. Preliminary mediations failed to resolve the negotiation struggles.
In July 2022, President Biden signed an Executive Order—in accordance with the Railway Labor Act—that established a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to serve as arbitrators. The revised contract that the PEB proposed did not provide adequate provisions for the railway workers’ demands. It did include a pay increase over five years, but it was rather insufficient when considering the rapid growth of inflation. Additionally, the pertinent issue regarding paid sick leave was not addressed.2 As a result of the failure to provide an adequate contract for the railway workers, the threat of a nationwide railway strike was looming.
Rather than work towards providing the necessary, bare minimum, resolutions in the contract agreement, the Biden administration pressured Congress to pass a tentative contract under the granted national jurisdiction through the Railway Labor Act of 1926 and thwart the potential striking movement of the railway workers.3 Additionally, this intervention made any potential striking illegal. The contract was coerced to be accepted on terms that failed to address adequate changes to the attendance policies and neglected the pressing seven paid sick day motion that union workers strived for.4 The motivation for Biden was to stand with corporations and economic interests rather than the dire concerns of the working-class.
President Biden is not a president for unions or working-class Americans. He remained throughout this crisis a stalwart of railroad companies and their profits. Unionization and workers’ rights are only political talking points for Biden to muster support and votes rather than an effective economic policy to uphold. If Biden was truly a president of the working-class American, he would have thoroughly addressed and condemned the rampant threats against workers across the nation. Corporations such as Amazon5 and Starbucks6 vehemently thwart union movements in their companies. The right to strike is under threat with the upcoming Supreme Court case Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. Teamsters Local 147.7 These are crucial events that threaten the working-class. However, Biden remains silent and on the side of corporations. The invocation of urging Congress to pass the PRO Act as well is the bare minimum of attempting to express support for safeguarding working-class rights. It would be a salient standpoint to inspire more effective and radical change. The working-class has reached a point where rapid inflation and stagnant wages have dominated the work environment for nearly four decades. It is certainly reaching a breaking point where more critical change in working-class rights.
The consequences of weakening of unionization and the permeability of ignorance of corporate profiteering by the federal government are already proving distress not only to the working-class, but civilians and the environment as well. On February 3, in East Palestine, Ohio, a train transporting hazardous chemicals derailed near the town of nearly 5,000 residents.8 The chemicals created dangerous atmospheric conditions for residents forcing them to evacuate. In response, Norfolk Southern—the corporation that owned the train—gave the town a donation of $25,000, despite the significant damages inflicted and the millions of dollars that Norfolk Southern profits.9 Before this disaster, union members had warned of the potential for significant consequences. Norfolk Southern had been cutting staff—creating understaffed trains—and lobbying against safety regulations for hazardous materials.10 This combination led to the incident in East Palestine. A stronger unionization effort that pushed for properly staffed trains and improved safety conditions would be a significant element to prevent such disasters.
The working-class is reckoning with the consequences of emerging hegemonic corporations, stagnant wages, rising inflation and cost of living, and other quotidian challenges. The Democrats and Republicans are more devoted to addressing the desires of the corporations rather than the needs of the working-class American. Politicians will evoke sentiments of change and solidarity, yet not strive to adequately resolve working-class issues. The union is an incremental step in addressing all working-class Americans’ issues. Policy is certainly a salient issue. However, local change in the workplace will inspire change. The unionization movement has suffered challenges especially in the past four decades, but it is growing now more than ever. It is time to reinvigorate coherent class solidarity through unionization to instigate change in the workplace and local communities.
- Hsu, Andrea. “How an Attendance Policy Brought the U.S. to the Brink of a Nationwide Rail Strike.” NPR. NPR, September 15, 2022. https://www.npr.org/2022/09/14/1122918098/railroads-freight-rail-union-strike-train-workers.
- Bose, Nandita and David Shepardson. “Biden Signs Bill to Block U.S. Railroad Strike.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, December 2, 2022. https://www.reuters.com/world/us/biden-signs-bill-block-us-railroad-strike-2022-12-02/.
- Kinery, Emma. “Biden Signs Bill Averting Rail Worker Strike despite Lack of Paid Sick Days.” CNBC. CNBC, December 2, 2022. https://www.cnbc.com/2022/12/02/biden-signs-bill-averting-rail-worker-strike-despite-lack-of-paid-sick-days.html.
- Bose and Shepardson. “Biden Signs Bill to Block U.S. Railroad Strike.”
- O’Donovan, Caroline. “Amazon Calls Cops, Fires Workers in Attempts to Stop Unionization Nationwide.” The Washington Post. WP Company, June 14, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/06/13/amazon-union-retaliation-allegations/.
- Greenhouse, Steven. “Starbucks Has Gotten Really, Really Good at Union Busting.” Slate Magazine. Slate, November 3, 2022. https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2022/11/starbucks-union-busting-tactics-workers-labor-wave-nlrb.html.
- Erskine, Ellena. “Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters.” SCOTUSblog. Accessed February 14, 2023. https://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/glacier-northwest-inc-v-international-brotherhood-of-teamsters/.
- Kim, Juliana. “Health Concerns Grow in East Palestine, Ohio, after Train Derailment.” NPR. NPR, February 14, 2023. https://www.npr.org/2023/02/14/1156567743/health-east-palestine-ohio-train-derailment-chemicals.
- Yamanouchi, Kelly. “EPA: Norfolk Southern Could Be Liable for Ohio Train Derailment Cleanup.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 13, 2023. https://www.ajc.com/news/business/epa-norfolk-southern-could-be-liable-for-ohio-train-derailment-cleanup/TTBMYKHZ7VELVOWQ36IRFOOIOM/.
- David Sirota Julia Rock Rebecca Burns , David Sirota, Julia Rock, Rebecca Burns, Matthew Cunningham-Cook, Anton Jäger, René Rojas, et al. “Railroad Corporations Are Blocking Safety Regulations to Protect Profits.” Jacobin, February 2023. https://jacobin.com/2023/02/rail-companies-safety-rules-ohio-derailment-brake-sytems-regulations.
Featured image courtesy of VectorStock
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