Earlier this week, the Biden White House issued a statement of thanks to Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives who had just voted to impose a contract without sick days on railworkers and override their right to strike. Running less than 150 words, the press release revealingly made no mention of the other House vote — to include seven of those very sick days in the same deal — that had just taken place. Subsequently confronted over the omission, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre offered the verbal equivalent of a shrug. “The president,” she said, “supports paid sick leave for rail workers. But he understands there are not sixty votes. Right? There are not sixty votes in the Senate to make that happen.”
Roughly twenty-four hours later, the initiative duly died its expected death and fell eight votes short of the necessary threshold. Parallel legislation to impose a contract on railworkers meanwhile passed by a whopping margin of eighty to fifteen. Never let anyone tell you that bipartisanship is dead.
As Joe Biden’s various statements illustrate, the line from senior Democrats leading up to yesterday’s critical Senate vote was a classic Democratic sleight of hand. From labor and transportation secretaries Marty Walsh and Pete Buttigieg to outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, powerful Democrats have lazily gestured in the direction of support for the insertion of paid sick time into the deal while variously buck-passing, rhetorically spinning their wheels, or refusing to comment altogether. The act was hardly convincing but clearly served its intended purpose. By declaring their nominal endorsement of the rail unions’ key demand while simultaneously doing the bidding of the US Chamber of Commerce in working to prevent a strike at all costs, Democratic leaders, as ever, got to have their cake and eat it too.
Yesterday’s outcome was not inevitable. By requesting earlier this week that Congress step in and impose a contract, the administration clearly indicated where its real priority lay. Nonetheless, following the well-deserved backlash this move elicited, Biden and other senior Democrats might have changed course and actively tried to whip votes for paid sick days (something, incidentally, that Biden vociferously promised he would offer all workers while running for president). As the New Republic’s Prem Thakker quite rightly wrote:
The paid sick leave bill, given to Biden on a platter by progressives, offered the president a second chance at getting it right for rail workers. After every single present Democrat — 218 of them — voted in support of the measure, Biden could have expressed excitement at the prospect of giving rail workers paid sick leave, blasted the 207 Republicans who voted against it, and even pressured the Senate to follow the House’s suit. After all, numerous Republican senators, including Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Josh Hawley, have expressed noncommittal support for rail workers. Biden could have turned the tables and forced them and other Republicans to put up or shut up. It would have been good politics, and morals too.
The only reasonable conclusion to draw here is that the Democratic leadership is much more concerned about the prospect of getting angry calls from America’s rail company executives than it is about the horrendously exploitative conditions facing those who actually work on its railways. Attempting to rally the necessary Senate votes for paid sick days might have failed, but it at least would have had the virtue of basic political and moral consistency.
And the truth is that sixty votes were never the real prerequisite for winning them to begin with. By threatening to withdraw their labor — and, if necessary, go on strike — more than 100,000 railworkers already had the potential means at their disposal to force their employers’ hands. With the explicit support of the Biden White House, a Democratic-led Congress instead intervened to deprive them of this right — and, in doing so, signaled to big employers everywhere that they can count on the political class to step in when workers become too unruly.
Say one thing, do another; wield power but feign powerlessness; rhetorically come down on the side of basic justice while actively working against it in practice. From start to finish, this week’s wranglings have been a tour de force of liberal hypocrisy and also a case study in everything wrong with the Democratic Party. Perhaps no one put it more starkly than Michigan representative Rashida Tlaib, who remarked:
If the rail industry wants to avert a national rail strike, then they should provide their employees with guaranteed paid sick leave. As for the Democratic Party, if we are going to be the party of the working class, we need to stand with workers every time.