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Labor historians urge Biden against intervening rail labor deal

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The Senate today passed legislation to avert a holiday season rail strike, ending an impasse between rail workers and their companies. It was already passed by the House, and it now heads to President Biden's desk. Just days ago, Biden made a personal appeal, calling on Congress to impose this agreement, a deal that was reached in September but had been rejected by some of the 12 unions involved. Biden's decision to intervene risks a backlash from some labor allies. In an open letter, over 100 labor historians called on the president not to undermine collective bargaining. One of the professors who signed that letter is Joseph McCartin of Georgetown University. When I spoke to him earlier today, he told me that the president should have more carefully considered the implications of this type of intervention.

JOSEPH MCCARTIN: We feel that the president's role in this has to be more than simply an all or nothing - either take the deal as it is or have a strike. We feel like what a president does in a situation like this, as history teaches, can have big impacts not only on the workers directly involved, the railroad workers in this case, but broadly on workers well beyond the rails. That's certainly been the case in past disputes with railroad workers.

SUMMERS: You know, I think that it may have come as a surprise to many who don't follow labor issues as closely as you do that Congress has the authority to step in and force labor deals like this one on railroad workers. Can you help us understand how we got to that point? What are the routes there?

MCCARTIN: The federal government has involved itself more in railroad disputes than in any other kind of labor dispute and has a longer history in that area than in any other. We have the oldest national labor law regarding collective bargaining that dates to 1926. And it governed only railroad workers at the beginning. That preceded the Wagner Act, which brought collective bargaining to other workers. And from the 1926 bill on, the federal government's had unusual authority to step in and, in situations like this, sort of dictate the outcome of a crisis. That happened right after World War II, by the way, when Harry Truman faced a railroad strike and threatened to draft the strikers if they actually went on strike. Again, that was another example of where a president's action, in that case, with that kind of threat, helped to set the tone of a kind of anti-labor mood, which began to grow after 1946.

SUMMERS: Now, as a senator, Biden has previously argued against congressional action in railway labor disputes, saying that they unfairly interfere with union bargaining efforts. In fact, in 1992, he was one of only six senators to vote against the legislation that ended that railway strike. What do you think has changed with the calculation here?

MCCARTIN: Well, I think he feels that as president, he has to play a different role. A strike in that case, it just affected one railroad, the CSX railroad. Other railroads stopped moving traffic in order to force a presidential intervention at that time. And Biden knew that that was wrong. In this case, I think the railroads have actually put him in a box.

SUMMERS: Before I let you go, I do want to ask you broadly about President Biden's record on labor. He has described himself repeatedly as a pro-labor president. I covered his campaign, and he campaigned as an ally of organized labor. To your mind, is that a fair sentiment?

MCCARTIN: It is. He has been an ally of organized labor, but that doesn't mean that, in this case, he's acting out of that proclaimed alliance. And he says he's reluctant to do what he's trying to do in this case. But for the workers involved, whether he's reluctant or not doesn't really matter. It doesn't solve their problem. One can be pro-labor and at the same time, I think, miss the boat in a particular situation like this one.

SUMMERS: Joseph McCartin is director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. Thank you so much for your time.

MCCARTIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.