The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden is averting a railroad strike but missing an opportunity

President Biden meets with congressional leaders to discuss a looming shutdown of the nation's freight railroads. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg)

At President Biden’s urging, Congress is likely to step in soon to prevent a railroad strike by forcing unions to accept an agreement some recently rejected. Democrats’ calculation is simple: Even if this represents a defeat for labor rights, the damage to the economy imposed by a strike would be almost catastrophic.

It’s an understandable position. But this is also a missed opportunity, not only to make good on Biden’s promise to be the most pro-labor president in history but also to help Americans rethink our beliefs about work — beliefs that to much of the world are dysfunctional or even borderline deranged.

The phrase “internalizing your oppression” describes what happens when you take on the perspective of those who are holding you down, believing you deserve nothing better. That’s what American workers have done for too long, and Biden seemed to want to change this.

But Biden keeps missing his chances.

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Rail workers are represented by multiple unions, which had made a series of demands of companies that dominate the industry. While workers wanted better pay, they were most concerned about the conditions of employment. Staffing cuts stretched them thin. Tiring and often unpredictable schedules took them away from their families.

And a lack of sick days and flexibility left them unable to respond to family or medical emergencies. In recent years, rail companies have even adopted a “points-based attendance policy” that penalizes workers for things like going to the doctor.

In September, the administration negotiated an agreement to avert a strike, but that agreement gave workers just one paid sick day. While most rail unions voted to accept the agreement, four voted it down. The leader of one of the four, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, said his members will not ratify a deal unless it includes four paid sick days, which the companies refuse to grant. Four days. The companies’ position is that if people get sick, they can use their vacation days.

We can use a number of frames to understand this story. “Clock is ticking toward crisis!” is one. “Two sides can’t agree” is another. “Fed up workers demand basic human dignity from rapacious oligarchs” would be another.

Would that last one be so inaccurate?

Consider how people think about work in our peer countries, where standards of living are roughly comparable to ours. While every country is a little different, we stand alone in how little the government guarantees to workers; elsewhere, the law is written with the idea that people are not just cogs in a wheel but human beings deserving of dignity and respect.

The United States is one of the few developed countries with no legal requirement for paid sick leave. And in other countries, the law requires that workers be given months of paid time off to have a baby or care for a sick relative. While a few states have passed their own sick and family leave requirements, for most American workers, their employer decides whether they get a single day of paid leave.

Meanwhile, in countries such as Germany, Britain, Australia and France, workers are guaranteed 20 or more paid vacation days per year, in addition to holidays. The United States is alone among peer countries in requiring no paid vacation under law.

What has the party of working people done about it? Democrats passed the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which requires unpaid leave for an emergency; for many people that might as well not exist. Democrats say they want to require paid sick and family leave, but they haven’t made it happen.

For all Biden’s words about his commitment to workers, most Americans can’t see that his presidency has changed anything in the way they relate to their employers. When people start doing only what their jobs require, we wring our hands about “quiet quitting,” as though we have a moral obligation to give our weekends and evenings to our employers.

So even if Biden has decided he needs to sign a bill to avert this strike, what if he did it with some pro-worker brio?

What if he walked out in front of the cameras, called out the rail CEOs by name and brought some good, old-fashioned fire and brimstone? Imagine the response if the president said, “Lance Fritz, from Union Pacific. You got $14.5 million in compensation last year.Your company made $9.3 billion in profits. You spent $7.3 billion on stock buybacks to juice your share price. And you won’t give the men and women who made that money for you four lousy sick days?”

It might just reframe the discussion.

Biden has talked about dignity at work before; if that seems like a novel concept, it’s because everything about the structuring of the American workplace works against it. And yes, he has appointed pro-labor people to key jobs in the government and rolled back cruel Trump administration policies. But he needs to use his platform more aggressively — not just from time to time, but all the time.

The idea that a job is fundamentally a generous favor granted to you by your boss is woven deeply into American law and culture, and one president can’t unwind it completely. But Biden could give voice to the Americans who know there’s something deeply wrong with how we think about work.