President Biden’s strike-averting railroad deal takes place amid a long-decaying discourse about working conditions.
Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.
Last week, President Joe Biden, who promised he was going to be a “pro-labor president,” signed a law forcing freight rail laborers to accept a tentative agreement that doesn’t even include seven paid sick days.
And while it is infuriating that a) sick days are not new b) seven is asking the barest of bare minimums and c) freight rail companies still wouldn’t grant that one small ask, the betrayal goes even deeper. Because while politicians and the press have honed in on sick days, that wasn’t why freight rail workers were prepared to strike. Many believe that if even they had gotten that small ask, it would not have addressed the deeper issues in the industry.
“Yes, people talked about having to show up to work sick. Yes, workers talked about not being able to go to doctor appointments or receive needed medical care,” Aaron Gordon wrote for Vice. “But they also talked about a lot of other issues that have been minimized in the last several months, issues that matter to the entire American public. What was once the beginnings of a grassroots worker uprising against corporate greed narrowed to a grievance about sick time.”
Gordon has been covering the issue since 2021, when a union official posted a YouTube video warning that rail freight companies, while raking in record profits, were using the pandemic to justify cutting safety inspections, closing inspection and repair facilities, and “slashing staff to the bone.” Less than a month after that video was posted, there were six freight derailments reported in the media and many more that went unreported.
Train derailments aren’t anything new. In 2019 there were 341 derailments reported, of which 24 were freight trains carrying 159 cars of hazardous material. But several workers told Gordon they believed “it was a matter of time” before something truly disastrous and deadly would happen.
“There’s going to be a freight car that hasn’t been inspected in 90,000 miles that comes off the track, as it goes off the track and slams into other cars, into a tank car, and either explodes or leaks poisonous gas out,” one worker told Vice. “It’s going to take something like that, and a lot of deaths, and then all of a sudden everybody’s going to care.”
Gordon also spoke with 28 workers about the toll of the staffing cuts, mandatory overtime, and mandatory on-call requirements, which one rail worker’s wife described as “draconian” and said they had “reached an unlivable point.”
“They want them on call or on shift 90 percent of their life,” she said. “They go to work sick, they miss funerals of loved ones, they miss final goodbyes to parents on hospice, they miss holidays, birthdays, all of it.”
So no, this is not something that can be fixed with extra pay and seven sick days.
If you look back at some of our recent labor coverage, you’ll find that, yes, pay, benefits, and job security are key reasons why workers unionize or go on strike. But there’s also a larger picture of companies demanding workers do more while the companies fail to provide the bare minimum in working conditions: dignity, and even safety.
At the Clarion Suites hotel, cleaning staff wanted their holiday benefits returned and a cap on the number of rooms they would need to clean in a shift. At Crushin’ It, workers asked for workshop temperatures to go no higher than 80 degrees and for their bathrooms to be cleaned. Instead the owner sold the equipment.
So how did all the reporting on the freight rail strike miss the brutal working conditions and risk to public safety?
In 2021, an On The Media segment titled “How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class,” Christopher R. Martin, a professor of digital journalism at the University of Northern Iowa, compared coverage of a New York transport workers strike in 1941 and another in 1983, noting that in the 1941 coverage, “was mostly about the contract issues between the workers, the bus company and New York Mayor LaGuardia” even though the strike affected almost one million commuters. The 1983 strike coverage was firmly rooted in the impact on 90,000 commuters in New York.
“There was a huge photo on the front page showing three businessmen from Westchester, and they look like fish out of water. They’re in their trench coats with briefcases on their laps. And they’re riding a dirty, graffiti riddled subway car leaving the station and Bronx,” Martin said. “And we get a quote from a commuter saying ‘The idea of such a small minority having such an impact on such a huge majority is just not right.’ And that really says everything about who The New York Times thinks its audience is by 1983.”
Martin said that in the 1960s and ’70s, newsrooms shifted and became more professionalized, with more college-educated reporters and fewer who came from working-class union homes. Also, as newspapers consolidated, they focused on middle- and upper-middle class audiences, so the focus of their coverage of labor disputes shifted to the impact on consumers.
“[I]f there’s a strike, I mean, the consumer is very much about things going back to the way they are, forget whatever the workers wanted. You don’t want your accessibility to the product or service to diminish. You don’t want prices to go up. You just want things back the way it was,” Martin said in the OTM segment. “So, the consumer being king is one of the important frames that we get. Another one is the production process is none of the public’s business. So, we don’t get to see the process of production very often, which would include necessarily talking about workers and their conditions.”
Sound familiar? This is how a supposedly pro-labor President during a surge of support for unionized labor, ignored the real, dangerous, and inhumane working conditions of freight workers and instead prioritized “the economy.” And yes, inflation would have hurt everyone (including myself) and especially the poorest. But the solution there isn’t to sacrifice rail workers; it’s to organize to support those most impacted in the short term. In the long run, it’s to build societies that cannot be held hostage by a handful of industries, such as banking and fossil fuels.
Because we should have learned two things by now: money does not trickle down, but poor working conditions do trickle up. If we agree as a society that one group of workers no longer qualifies for dignity and safety in their workplace, eventually it’s hard to argue that anyone does. It’s just a matter of time.