If Biden Is Really Pro-Union, He Has One Chance to Prove It

President Biden has reveled in a reputation as perhaps the most outspoken supporter of organized labor ever to sit in the White House. On his first Labor Day as president, he hailed unions as necessary “to counter corporate power, to grow the economy from the bottom up and the middle out.” But it has been easy for Mr. Biden to praise unions in an era in which they have little power to make a president uncomfortable.

The looming threat of a railroad strike presents the first time that Mr. Biden’s statements about unions has been put to a stress test. Americans are learning, as a result, that this president shares with many of his predecessors a queasiness about letting workers wield power.

Tens of thousands of freight railroad workers have labored without a contract for two years. In September, the Biden administration narrowly averted a strike by brokering a deal for a new contract, including a significant pay increase. But that deal was rejected by workers in four of the 12 covered unions, which together represent more than half of the industry’s unionized work force. Many of those who voted against the deal said they were holding out for paid sick leave, which the railroads have refused to provide.

Mr. Biden is not just a vocal proponent of unions. He is also a vocal proponent of requiring employers to provide paid sick leave. But this week, fearing the economic consequences of a strike, he intervened again, urging Congress to pass legislation that would impose on the unions the terms of the September deal — with no paid sick leave — without their agreement.

The House, moving with rare speed, approved the bill on Wednesday. In a statement that perfectly captured the yawning gap between Democratic Party talk and reality, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi denounced railroad companies as rapacious profiteers who “have been selling out to Wall Street to boost their bottom lines, making obscene profits while demanding more and more from railroad workers.” Then, just one sentence later, she announced that House Democrats would stand with the profiteers.

There is still hope for a more equitable outcome. Facing an internal revolt, House Democrats on Wednesday also passed a bill that would provide seven days of paid sick leave for the railroad workers. That bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate, in part because Mr. Biden seems unwilling to fight for it. If the president means a word of his statements about the value of unions and the needs of workers, then that is exactly what he must do.

The federal government has long recognized that the transportation sector’s role in the broader economy requires special handling, and Congress long ago reserved to itself the power to intervene in railroad labor disputes. Mr. Biden has good reason to worry that a strike would cause significant economic disruptions and could add to inflationary pressures.

But the president has picked the wrong side of the fight. He should be pressing the companies to make concessions. The big freight railroads have cut about 45,000 jobs in recent years, reducing the number of workers on their payrolls by 29 percent, according to the federal Surface Transportation Board. Cutting costs has allowed them to hand out almost $200 billion in stock buybacks and dividends since 2010, and post-pandemic demand has driven profits to new heights. But the railroads have pushed their remaining workers to the breaking point.

The apparent willingness of Mr. Biden and his congressional allies to sacrifice the legitimate demands of railroad workers has broader consequences, too.

The power of a union is the power to say no. Unions can improve the lives of their members and increase the output of the economy — and they do so by threatening to reduce that output by disrupting economic activity. Unions hold the same power over management that management holds over workers: Deal with us, or everyone suffers. The unhappiness of a single worker is negligible; a collective must be reckoned with.

The case for stripping the railroad unions of that power rests on the same calculus that has dictated much of the nation’s economic policy for the past several decades: The government is sacrificing the interests of a relatively small number of workers for the benefit of consumers. And in the short term, keeping the trains running will undoubtedly be better for the economy than allowing strikers to disrupt the movement of goods during the holiday shopping season.

But all the little decisions to squeeze workers have pernicious effects in the aggregate. Constraining unions empowers corporations, which is a driver of economic inequality. And those inequalities are contributing to the nation’s political instability.

Securing a better deal for railroad workers isn’t just about helping railroad workers. A healthy work force is vital to maintain a functioning freight railroad system. And the terms of this deal will establish a standard for other workers — for better or for worse.

Mr. Biden has repeatedly said that he knows all of this. The hard part is paying the price.

In June 1992, workers at CSX, one of the nation’s largest freight railroads, went out on strike. Other freight railroads responded by shutting down their own operations, and the industry pressed Congress to impose a new contract on workers. When Congress moved with alacrity to do the industry’s bidding, passing a bill just two days later, Mr. Biden was one of only six senators to vote against the government’s intervention. Then, too, he expressed concern about economic disruptions. “But,” he said at the time, “I am also concerned that we are rewarding a concerted decision of the railroads” not to offer the workers better terms, but instead to rely on the federal government to break the strike.

Mr. Biden now has the chance to show he meant what he said.

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