For now, the country’s railways will continue to operate. A nationwide strike that was supposed to start today at midnight and disrupt both the freight and passenger railways was averted by a preliminary agreement between union leaders and the railway management. This deal has yet to be ratified by the union members themselves.
President Joe Biden called the agreement “America’s great victory.” The president was “virtually twisting the arms of the railroad companies,” Eric Loomis, a University of Rhode Island professor who specializes in US labor history, told me. Biden’s rationale may have been partly political, Loomis said: stopping freight traffic could worsen inflation at a delicate time for his approval rating. But another element of this, he says, may have to do with his identity in Scranton and his upbringing in “one of those industrial working-class cities.”
While Loomis warns it’s still early, he believes Biden could be the country’s most pro-union president. At the very least, he argues, the current president ranks well above any recent Democratic president.
I contacted Loomis by phone to discuss this morning’s news and Biden’s place in the presidential labor story arc.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Caroline Mimbs Nice: Is it normal for the president and secretary of labor to play the role of intermediary between railroad unions and management?
Eric Loomis: Yes and no. Of course, when you’re talking about transport strikes – and you’re talking about labor actions that could really shut down a lot of the economy – then, of course, yes.
The difference between President Biden and previous presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike, is that he is truly determined not to use his power to harm unions. While other past presidents may have put great pressure on union leaders, President Biden uses his power to put pressure on companies.
Nice: Where does Biden rank if you have a scale from “hard on unions” to “pro unions”? Where would you put him in presidential history?
Loomis: Very close to the top of union support. In fact, there aren’t many instances in American history, even during the peak period of labor union power and New Deal liberalism, when a president was so openly pro-worker. You’ve seen it go back to President Biden. pre-vote 2021 speech at Amazon’s Alabama facility. Even though the union’s efforts have failed, Biden is urging workers to vote for their conscience, reminding them that they have every right to join a union if they choose.
Presidents really haven’t done this before. Even Roosevelt was not directly involved in the efforts of individual labor unions. And at times even Roosevelt acted against what the unions wanted. While the labor movement did achieve more under Roosevelt, it had much more to do with the conditions of the era and the gigantic Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate than it did under Roosevelt on its own.
You really have to put Biden at the very top, even above other Democratic presidents of the last 80 or 90 years – definitely more pro-Labor than any recent Democratic president, including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter.
Nice: Do you think he could be the most union president we’ve ever had?
Loomis: Well, it’s a little early. We’ll have to see. But yes, it can be done.
case against it [that] in the 1930s you have the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, all of these laws created the conditions for the modern organization of work. This, of course, is true.
But again, the difference is that Biden is using real political capital to benefit labor unions in a deeply divided America. He spends his relatively limited political capital as president in a very divided country and in a divided party, and he spends it on the labor movement. There is no other president who would do this.
Lyndon Johnson, for example, introduced a large labor legislation to the Senate, and it almost passed. And on other issues, Johnson used his pressure to get through civil rights and Medicare. He didn’t do it with the labor account. And the labor bill failed. You see it over and over again with Democratic presidents.
Thus, it can be concluded that, given the context and circumstances, Biden was either the most unionized president or one of the most unionized presidents in American history. And maybe that’s because the bar is very low. But this is what it is.
Nice: When other presidents had to face the threat of major strikes, what did they usually look like?
Loomis: If you want to go back in time, railroad strikes were among the most important strikes in American history, in part because they have the power to bring the economy to a halt. The Presidents would use the military to completely crush them. This is what President Hayes does with Great Railroad Strike of 1877. This is what President Cleveland does with the Pullman strike in 1894. And this is one of the iconic moments of the brutal American working-class past.
There are also strikes by planes and ships. Presidents have had different tactics on this sort of thing. For example, it is infamous that President Reagan fired air traffic controllers.
Sometimes things happen that you didn’t expect. In 2002, for example, President George W. Bush—not a friend of the unions, to put it mildly—actually intervenes when the movers go on strike. Because of the threat to the economy, he helps workers enforce the Taft-Hartley Act against companies.
Nice: Obviously this industry was already organized, but in general there was a lot of talk about a post-COVID union boom. How do you feel about this moment in labor history? Do you think Biden is reading tea leaves here?
Loomis: I think Biden genuinely feels the unions personally. His Scranton background is a very large part of his biography. It is one of the best industrial cities of the working class.
I do think that right now, as you see the surge in organizational activity, the president is trying to change the rules of the labor law game, and the application of this law has indeed been tilted in favor of companies lately. for over 40 years now.
He is guessing in the coffee grounds in the sense that he spends political capital on helping the workers, because the workers take the initiative to help themselves to a certain extent. But it should also be said that the president’s power here is somewhat limited.
Nice: In the early days of COVID, we saw several stories suggesting that previous pandemics led to greater increases in occupational safety and health. Do you think this is a unique moment in history?
Loomis: I would not like to generalize too much. If you look at the Black Death, there is no doubt that those who survived had a significantly larger workforce than before. But it was a situation where 25 to 50 percent of the population died.
With COVID, as the government stepped in and gave people money to stay at home, it gave people time and space to rethink their place in the economy. Many Americans have been given the opportunity to sit back and not work at their rather crappy jobs that they hate day in and day out. And they need time to think about what they really wanted to do. Many of them acted on this, resigned, went on strike, formed unions, demanded to work at home. Be that as it may, this has led to some shifts in the labor market.
Nice: Did something surprise you in the railway negotiations?
Loomis: I wouldn’t say that I was surprised, but I would say that there are two points worth noting.
First, how determined companies were to adhere to such a basic universal right as the right to take sick leave. This is a record-breaking industry that has done well over the past few years. It doesn’t surprise me that companies are looking to continue increasing profits at the expense of worker health and safety. But it is something that, if it does not surprise us, it must shock us, and that we must find it totally unacceptable in our society that workers cannot have sick leave.
Another point I would like to reiterate is how much President Biden was truly a Labor Party – in a sense, unprecedented. The simplest thing he could do in this case was to take the findings of his intermediary forces and run with them.
Nice: You are an expert in this field. Why is this story important to you? What are the main themes that you consider the most important?
Loomis: First, President Biden was going to do whatever was required of him to prevent this strike. Some of them for political reasons, obviously. The last thing he needed, given the already somewhat unfavorable political headwinds around his own approval rating, was a major strike to close railroads and overwhelm supply chains, fueling even more inflation.
The second important takeaway is President Biden’s really deep connection to the labor movement. In the 2020 presidential primaries, Biden was definitely not loved by the left in many ways. Politicians like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speak very well about the 99 percent, minimum wage issues and other things. What President Biden has that none of them have is real close ties to the unions themselves. It really does matter.