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An Open Letter from Historians In Support of Railway Workers

President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW Washington, DC 20500

CC: Secretary Martin J. Walsh
Department of Labor
200 Constitution Ave NW
Washington, DC 20001

Dear President Biden and Secretary Walsh,

We are historians of working people in the United States, committed to democratic trade unionism and a government that respects and encourages collective bargaining as a means to that end. Among our number are historians of air traffic controllers (PATCO), airline mechanics, railway workers, and wartime federal labor mediation. We are alarmed by your decision to ask Congress to impose an unfair and unpopular settlement in the current railway labor negotiations, which constitutes a negation of the democratic will of tens of thousands of workers and a subversion of your commitment to a revival of the American union movement. Instead of imposing a contract that these workers have already rejected, we urge you to put the full force of your Administration behind the eminently just demands of the railway workers, especially those that provide them with a livable and dignified work life schedule.

From the late 19th century onward, Americans have recognized that labor conflicts in rail and other transportation networks are of special importance for the functioning of society as a whole. The railways are a "common carrier," as indispensable for daily life as water, money, or the power grid. More to the point, no railcar can run without the workers employed in the industry. As a result, special legislation such as the Railway Labor Act of 1926 was enacted even before the New Deal. History shows us that the special legal treatment of rail and other transportation strikes offers the federal government—and the executive branch in particular—a rare opportunity to directly shape the outcome of collective bargaining, for good or for ill. During the Gilded Age, presidents sent armed soldiers to break rail strikes. During World War I, Woodrow Wilson and Congress averted a rail strike by giving the workers what they wanted: the eight-hour day.

These dramatic interventions can set the tone for entire eras of subsequent history. In 1916, railway workers won the eight-hour day, a form of economic freedom that millions more workers across industries would win during the 1930s. In other cases, government suppression of the rights of labor, including the right to strike, has bred violence, repression, and political and social alienation. You witnessed this in your own lifetime, when Ronald Reagan’s notorious breaking of the PATCO strike in 1981 (which resulted in the jailing of union leaders, the firing and permanent replacement of the striking air traffic controllers, and the decertification of the union) served as the starting gun for an economy-wide assault on workers’ rights and organizations. We are still dealing with the consequences today.

President Biden, you have vowed to become the “most pro-union president” in American history. You have said that “No one should have to choose between their job and their health – or the health of their children.” You have also issued executive orders and signed legislation claiming to promote the resiliency of our supply chains. What do these commitments mean if the women and men who work in an essential industry like rail cannot count on your support in their fight for basic protections? How resilient is a supply chain staffed by workers who lack basic democratic rights and social protections?

We call on the President, the Secretary of Labor, and Democratic congressional leaders:

1. Renounce your intention to intervene against the railway workers’ exercise of their legal right to withhold their labor in a contract-related strike.

2. Use the full force of their formal and informal powers to ensure that workers win a contract that meets their fair and modest demands regarding paid sick days. If the party leadership cannot or will not do this, we call upon progressives in Congress to reject any imposed settlement that shortchanges workers and undermines collective bargaining and the right to strike.

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