Western Mass organized labor condemns Biden, Democrats for “betraying” rail workers
After the Biden administration worked to force a contract agreement on rail workers by preventing their right to strike in December, organized labor in Western Massachusetts is speaking out.
The Western Mass Area Labor Federation represents around 60,000 workers in the region.
“We're a coalition of more than 60 public and private sector unions in Western Massachusetts, covering four counties – Hampshire, Hampden, Berkshire and Franklin County – and our workers work in a number of different fields, trades: nursing, education, the service industries, and the like,” said Ian Rhodewalt, who sits on the body’s education committee and is a member of UAW 2322.
This month, the federation voted on two resolutions after the federal government forced an end to years of collective bargaining by rail workers through legislation at the end of 2022. The first regards the right to strike.
“The right to strike is an inherent part of collective bargaining," said Jeff Jones. "It's something that is rarely used, but is still on the table. And if one of our union affiliates or another union is in a position where they feel they have to utilize it, they should be able to utilize it.”
Jones is the president of both the Western Mass Area Labor Federation and UFCW Local 1459, based in Springfield. Along with a defense of striking is a message of solidarity with the rail workers who accepted an unpopular contract after their right to strike was curtailed.
“Once the proposed settlement was rejected – I think there was a 55% rejection rate by the railroad workers – Congress basically came in and quickly passed legislation that overruled any further bargaining for that matter or a possible strike and said it's settled," Jones told WAMC. "So, we take offense to that.”
The bipartisan legislation that ended the years-long negotiations and hamstrung workers was backed by Democratic President Joe Biden, who has cast himself as the most pro-labor president in history.
“What we are saying with this resolution is that workers’ leverage at the bargaining table comes from our power to withhold our labor in the form of a strike. And so, any legislation that that impedes upon the right to strike serves the interests of management of the bosses, over the interests of the workers. And we're saying that that that should be deemed illegitimate," said Rhodewalt. “We're calling upon organized labor, the labor movement at all level levels – union locals and internationals, other area labor federations like ours, central labor councils, as well as workers centers – to take for forceful action in response to the federal government’s suppression of railroad workers' rights. And one of the things that we should keep in mind is that railroad workers are on call 24/7, 365, and they have no paid sick leave. So, they're not even able to go to the doctor. And this is at the same time as the railroad companies are making huge profits and are cutting back personnel. They've been cutting back personnel massively over the years.”
Biden said the contract was the best option and allowed the country to avoid up to 750,000 job losses and a recession. Unions that accepted a tentative agreement brokered in September were in line for back pay for 24 percent raises dating to 2020. The final vote in the Senate was 80-to-15, but opponents decried the lack of paid sick leave in the final deal.
Jones says Biden has betrayed his claims of being a pro-labor leader by undercutting rail workers and backing owners, reminiscent of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization being gutted by Republican leadership in 1981.
“I'm old enough to remember when Ronald Reagan was president and his attack on the PATCO workers," he told WAMC. "That kind of was like a signal. That was like the open-door policy for a full-frontal assault on organized labor.”
Jones says the incident marks a flashpoint in the relationship between unions and the Democratic Party.
“Two years previously, when the Speaker of the House came in and wanted to be reelected, there was a small contingent of progressives that could have forced a vote on certain items," he said. "And it was nothing like the total dysfunction that we just saw with Republicans. It was like simple things, like trying to get a floor vote on Medicare For All- Not saying they would be passing, but at least have the floor vote, have a debate, have a discussion, things like that, and they got nowhere. And they were told that they had to shut it down and bide their time and they would be taken care of. And now we see- Is this situation with the railroad workers, is that part of the equation about how the working class is going to be taken care of? So, I think there's a lot of stuff on the line. And I think the administration and the Congress, for that matter, has a window to do something about it. But we'll see. We'll see what happens. Because that debt ceiling fight is probably going to happen, and we need to be in a position to keep the government up and running and keep social services and retirement plans being provided to people and keep the economy moving.”
The decision by Biden and his fellow Democrats to turn on workers has left labor leaders like Jones flummoxed.
“What led anyone to believe that the railroad workers were going to accept this contract, after three years, were going to accept this contract with no sick days provided- I just, I do not understand that," Jones told WAMC. "And for people to come out and hail like, hey, we have a mediated agreement and we've averted a labor situation, and then to actually read what's in the agreement is, to me, is just baffling. Of course it was rejected. It doesn't surprise me at all that it was rejected. We're talking about elementary things. We're talking about sick days and personal time off. We're not asking for the moon. And they couldn't even get that.”