Amtrak workers service trains

Workers service trains in the Amtrak Car Yard on September 13, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois.

(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In Railroad Workers' Fight, Democrats Must Show Whose Side They're Really On

Some lessons from the (almost) Great Railroad Strike of 2022.

Bernie Sandersclutched both sides of the sturdy wooden podium at the UAW Local 578 hall in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, as he prepared to address a packed house of 400 union workers, students, campaign staff, and curiosity seekers. Looking like a cross between a history professor and a professional wrestler from a bygone era, the Independent U.S. Senator from Vermont leaned in, then rocked back and forth. He was pacing himself before launching into another stem-winder lecture on income inequality and the state's fiercely contested U.S. Senate race, whose Republican incumbent, Ron Johnson, lives in Oshkosh.

"We're going to have to knock down a wall or two," Sanders remarked. "This is a good turnout."

Oshkosh, a city of 67,000 people, was built by a union workforce. Its sawmills wereorganized in the late nineteenth century, and the University of Wisconsin campus a few miles up the road was the state's first teachers college,founded in 1871. Labor's roots run deep here on the western shore of Lake Winnebago.

In recent years, Winnebago County has become a bellwether. When it goes narrowly blue or grazes the 50 percent mark, Democrats win statewide. Blue-collar Oshkosh anchors the county, and Democrats must ramp up turnout here to win tightly contested races.

Democratslost the U.S. Senate race in November's midterm elections butprevailed in the race for governor, and kept the Oshkosh-based state assembly seat in the Democratic fold, thereby staving off a Republican run for a supermajority in the lower house. In November, Governor Tony Everslost Winnebago County by just one percentage point.

For the first time in decades, Democrats are on track to burnish their street credentials as a truly economic populist party, a sharp turn from the ideologies and philosophies of the previous three Democratic administrations: neoliberalism (Barack Obama), neo-neoliberalism (Bill Clinton), and rudderless-ism (Jimmy Carter).

Shifts in the gubernatorial race have beensignificant since2010 in the outer-ring suburbs of Milwaukee, namely Waukesha and Ozaukee Counties. But movement in counties like Winnebago and Eau Claire—the latter of which saw a sixteen-point increase for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate between 2010 and 2022—which have college and working class populations, was not as well noticed. Democrats held their own in rural areas likeWood County, home to Verso Paper, which wasshuttered two years earlier and had supported more than 900 localjobs, along with countless logging jobs in the Northwoods.

One month after Democrats beat expectations in the 2022 midterm elections by holding on to the U.S. Senate and denying Republicans a working majority in the House, President Joe Biden broke from his populist, pro-labor moorings and spiked a good labor contract proposal by the railway workers' unions.

When rank-and-file members of four of the twelve unions rightlyrejected a proposal that did not grant them enough paid sick days, Bideninvoked the Railway Labor Act of 1926 andsent the rebuffed contract to Congress for ratification. It was the first time a President had applied that law since 1992, when then-U.S. Senator Joe Biden was one of just six Senators tooppose the measure.

Biden breached the trust of American workers and did untold damage to hisbrand as the "most pro-union President you've ever seen." Progressive Democrats understood both the symbolism and the substance of the President's actions. But thanks to quick work by Sanders and Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal, of Washington State, progressives put a separate measure up for a vote thatincluded seven days of paid sick leave, to add to the railway contract bill. However, the Senatefailed to reach cloture, and the measure died. (Yet another reason to ax the filibuster.)

The Railway Labor Act is an outdated labor law that was designed to placate workers at a time when they were achieving significant momentum. Its roots were in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, when workers took one too many pay cuts on the chin and decided to fight back. One striking worker famouslystated, "I might as well die by the bullet as to starve to death by inches."

Laws were soon passed to set up arbitration panels to salve workers' grievances. But members of Congress struggled to pin down an effective mediation and arbitration system to resolve grievances. President Woodrow Wilson came close to fixing this when henationalized the rail industry in 1917. But shortly after World War I, Wilson returned power to the railroad owners, and the industry oligarchs have been screwing over workers ever since.

Then came the cure-all: the New Deal'sNational Labor Relations Act of 1935. It, too, was designed to quell labor unrest. President Franklin D. Roosevelt could not allow unregulated union activity to upend the New Deal. While the act'strue intent was to pump the brakes on union momentum, its initial effects were quite promising for the labor movement. Unions became recognized across the country and among all private-sector industries. By the end of the Great Depression, enrollment in unions had shot up almostthree-fold, from 7 to 20 percent of employed workers.

But as soon as labor started grabbing the upper hand, Congress responded with the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 over President Harry Truman's veto, which limited job actions, made union dues voluntary, and prohibited closed shops. The bipartisan vote spelled the beginning of the end of the modern-day labor movement. When it took effect in the aftermath of World War II,one out of three private-sector workers were in a union. Three years later, union density had fallen by 10 percent. It rebounded briefly, but by the end of the 1960s, its downward trajectory was clear.

Tim Jacobson of UAW Local 578 looks exactly like you would expect a union steward to look. He has a commanding presence, is tall, muscular, and has a frame built for a hard hat. He hunches over slightly, no doubt the result of decades on the Oshkosh Defense assembly line fastening bolts and panels onto military tactical trucks.

Elbowing his way through a scrum of fans after Sanders's speech, Jacobson presented the Senator with a T-shirt from the union local. Sanders gladly accepted it, held it up to an approving crowd, and slipped out the side door.

Jacobson was stoked that Sanders had made it to his union hall. For almost two years, he and his union brothers and sisters had been trying to grab the attention of national leaders. In June 2021, Oshkosh Corporation, the parent company of his employer,selected Spartanburg, South Carolina, rather than Wisconsin, to fill a multi-billion-dollar U.S. Postal Service (USPS) contract to build the next fleet of electric postal vehicles. The contract was won on the merits and track record of the work by Jacobson and his colleagues, not because of an empty warehouse in the Palmetto State, leading many critics toaccuse the company of pulling a bait-and-switch.

Aside from a briefclash in the House Committee on Oversight and Reform earlier in the year between Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, and a USPS representative, Local 578's plight garnered scant national attention. While most would have given up, Jacobson soldiered on. His persistence and advocacy were the reason Sanders took a break from a nationwide campus tour to get out the youth vote—a vote that madethe difference in the midterm elections—to meet and rally with workers in Oshkosh.

What happened to Jacobson represents a bigger problem—not in organized labor, but in American and global industry. Chief executive officers are recruited not for their knowledge and understanding of how a certain industry works, but for other factors.According to Byron Hanson of the Curtin Graduate School of Business, "Industry experience is not as big a success factor as what people think it would be. My sense of success factors is more context-related or expertise-related."

While worker wages have stagnated in the past four decades, chief executive officer compensation has skyrocketed. From 1978 to 2021, it increased by 1,460 percent, according toan analysis by the Economic Policy Institute. Concurrently, the average worker's compensation package has grown at literally 1 percent of that rate.

During a visit to a local paper mill in the Fox River Valley, I once asked a now former paper executive what was in a rail car below his office window. "I'm not sure," he responded. "In fact, I don't really know what we actually do, I'm just here to run the place."

While he undoubtedly knew the difference between a paper roll and a roll of toilet paper, the executive's limited insight into a fundamental part of his business was revealing. If he didn't know what the hell was going on, who did? One year later, the company fell into bankruptcy.

It's union workers like Jacobson who dedicate an entire career to a single industry at a single plant. Unsurprisingly, manufacturing workers have the highest tenure—five years—of all major private industries in the United States. And for organized shops, with theunion wage premium, workers stick around longer.

When workers at Appleton Coated in Combined Locks, Wisconsin, rallied tosave their mill after it had been sold at areceivership sale in late 2017, it was the union that convinced a judge to give them another shot. And it was the workers' expertise that executed a new business model that made the company profitable. (Just over two years later, the owner—a scrap dealer that had bought the mill for parts—made tens of millions of dollars in profit byreselling it in 2020.)

When it came time to bring 1,000 union jobs to Oshkosh, it was Jacobson and UAW Local 578 President Bob Lynk who flew to Washington, D.C., to make their case to USPS officials and to lobby their members of Congress. Meanwhile, Oshkosh Defense executives were feted by anti-union South Carolina business groups, including being given the South Carolina Manufacturing Commerce and Expo's "Smart Move Award" for 2022.

If the workers are the ones tending to the shop, shouldn't they figure more prominently in industry? And shouldn't they be treated a little better?

Democrats should make clear whose side they are really on in the new Congress. One way to do that is to adopt an economic bill of rights, not unlike the one FDRproposed in January 1944, or what labor activists like University of Wisconsin–Green Bay professor emeritus Harvey Kaye and writerJohn Nichols, a contributor to The Progressive, have been championing of late. And that is tolay out in no uncertain terms what the American worker can count on from the Democratic Party in order to achieve "the essentials of a good life, regardless of their income, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or country of origin."

In states like Wisconsin, where Democrats beat expectations and met crucial goals like re-electing Tony Evers as governor and denying the GOP a supermajority in the state legislature, credit is owed to folks like Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, for injecting real resources into crucial races. Equally important, however, are workers like Jacobson, who should be credited with reminding elected leaders and candidates who it was that built the Democratic Party—and the nation—in the first place.

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