In July, freight workers voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike vote which would have brought roughly 30% of the nation’s freight to a standstill. President Biden immediately intervened, witnessing the problems in the supply chain and the soaring rate of inflation, to stop the strike.
Trying to preserve industrial peace and to prevent the Democrats from receiving a major blow in the November elections, he halted the strike which would have put the nation in a further unstable position than it currently is.
Biden intervened legally by signing an executive order which created a Presidential Emergency Board to resolve the dispute between the carriers and workers’ unions. Aviation and railroad workers fall negotiate disputes differently than any other unions in the country, because the Railway Labor Act intends to minimize the potential disruption of the Nation’s transportation system. Cutting off transportation for a day poses severe troubles for the business landscape which can witness increase supply costs, but also a shortage of goods. On the labor side, such a disruption can cause further chaos that can result in either more workers realizing the power that they have by stopping a key industry or others condemning them for their actions.
Building solidarity amongst workers is a difficult task at hand, since no one wants to experience the difficulties that arise as a result of trains or airplanes stopping.
Quite often, the mainstream media, as it is the case in the United Kingdom with the ongoing RMT strike, will try to portray the union as corrupt and the workers as sheep blindly following a leader. The same discourse was on the mainstream media’s lips during the March 2021 Bucharest metro strike and the bus workers protest of January 2022.
Instead of trying to understand their demands, to listen to workers, those television posts were infantilizing the workers, stripping them of power and regarding them as sheep that are easy to herd and guide around.
Even if the Presidential Emergency Board was invoked, there are 30 days during which negotiations can occur and a solution to be found. If no agreement is reached between the parts, then the workers and the employer have a 30-days cooldown period after which a strike could take place. An analysis of the airline industry contract negotiations show that over the course of twenty years (1982 – 2002), Presidential Emergency Boards were very seldom invoked. Most of the time, the conflict gets resolved through mediation, when workers get some increases in their contract and everything resumes business as usual. Strikes are rare to happen, but this time the discontent has reached a summit and people are not willing to back down.
With regards to the strike, Greg Regan, President of the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) of the AFL-CIO, said in statement:
“After more than three years of bad faith negotiations by the railroads, it is unfortunate but not surprising that contract agreements were not achieved through voluntary mediation. The railroads’ offer of a net pay cut and demand for health care concessions are wholly unacceptable.”
Regan emphasized that freight workers have not gotten a pay raise in over three years, but that they will keep on working. The negotiations will continue in a lawful manner, but the current transportation actions around the world might give workers leverage to demand more or to stop altogether the railroads.
European transportation unions have declared the summer of 2022, as being the one of chaos, with stoppages occurring in the aviation, port, freight and truck industries. Lufthansa pilots just recently voted to go on strike, while dock workers at major German seaports stopped working for 48 hours. In the United States, the West Coast port labor contracted expired, raising the possibility for a massive industrial action if negotiations do not go anywhere.
With workers fed up around the world and a current strong wave of unionization in the United States, the stakes are high for President Biden.
He has promised since the beginning of his mandate that he will be the most pro-union President and, credit given, he has delivered. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the governmental agency that deals with labor cases, is now very pro-union, and he has voiced support for the unionization waves at Amazon or Starbucks.
Regardless of those public endorsements and appointments to governmental agencies, his approval rate has been falling and Democrats are preparing for a turbulent November election. The soaring rate of inflation and the prospective of a recession (the US is now in a technical recession) left many people disillusioned.
I remember a conversation I once had with my History professor who said that voters often lack historical knowledge and instead of looking back to what might have caused the current crisis, they attribute it to the ones in power. Those short-term judgements hurt the ratings of the Democrats who in turn are trying to do everything to keep themselves from falling.
To witness a freight strike will be a powerful critical moment that will give people on the Left the possibility to organize around the cause. Just as it was the case in Romania, the mainstream media, the defenders of the establishment, will jump aggressively to push it down.
That confrontation, if it happens, will be crucial for the future of workers solidarity. In Romania, the voices in support of the bus strikers were few compared to the mounted attack of the media, politicians and public intellectuals. In the United States, the situation looks different and I hope that we will see a strong revival of workers’ solidarity to go past Biden’s Presidency.
With this post, we start the United States of Labor series on Cross-Border Talks. Every Friday, Romanian journalist Radu Stochita, who writes about labor and has lived in the United States, will comment on the American labour news. Industrial disputes, strikes, popular self-organisation – we are inviting you all to explore this lesser known, yet very vibrant, side of America.