Dec 1, 2022

The potential railroad strike.

Congress is trying to stop a potential strike before the holidays.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

Congress is trying to stop a potential railroad workers strike. But is Biden on the right side of the issue? Plus, a question about TikTok.

See you tomorrow.

In tomorrow's Friday edition, I'm going to be publishing a personal op-ed about the Supreme Court. More specifically, about whether the court should adopt a code of conduct and what that might look like. Keep your eye out for the piece and — even though it is subscribers only — please be sure to share it!

Quick hits.

  1. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) was chosen to become House Democrats' new leader, succeeding Nancy Pelosi. Jeffries is the first Black lawmaker to lead a party in Congress. (The pick)
  2. U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) grew faster than economists expected last quarter, rising 2.9% at an annualized rate (The growth). Separately, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell suggested he may ease up on interest rate hikes in the near future. (The pullback)
  3. At least two people were killed after severe storms that included hail and tornados swept through Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi on Tuesday and Wednesday, leaving over 40 million people under tornado and severe weather warnings. (The storms)
  4. Georgia is seeing record breaking early vote turnout ahead of the Dec. 6 Senate runoff between Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) and Herschel Walker (R). (The turnout)
  5. China's vice premier signaled that the country may ease its strict zero Covid policy, pointing to the less severe Omicron variants. The remarks come on the heels of days of protests across the country. (The stance)

Today's topic.

The railroad deal. Earlier this week, President Biden called on Congress to immediately pass legislation his administration helped broker that would impose an agreement onto unionized railroad workers. On Wednesday, the House quickly passed a measure to bind the parties to the agreement by a 290-137 vote.

The background: There are about 115,000 railroad workers in the United States who operate some 140,000 miles of railway. For two years, a group of 12 railway unions has been negotiating with railroad companies to increase pay, paid sick leave days, and improve scheduling flexibility for workers. Labor unions petitioned Democratic lawmakers for mediation, which was granted. Then they asked to be released from the mediation, which prompted Biden to introduce a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to resolve the dispute and avoid a strike.

In September, the PEB issued recommendations for an agreement that secured 24% pay increases over five years, the largest pay increase for rail workers in four decades. It also included $5,000 in bonuses retroactive to 2020 and capped health insurance premiums at 15% of the total cost of the insurance plan. It also called for one additional paid sick leave day. Eight of the 12 unions agreed to the deal, but four unions — representing more than half of the 115,000 workers — rejected it. Biden celebrated the terms with a Rose Garden ceremony, hoping to avert a strike.

However, with four railway unions standing their ground and rejecting it, and the rest promising not to cross the picket lines, a strike looked inevitable. Typically, Congress cannot get involved in private labor disputes, but they have the power to weigh in here because of the Railway Labor Act of 1926, which created processes for government involvement. Though it has happened several times before, this is the first time in nearly 30 years that Congress has intervened ahead of a potential rail strike.

Now what? With no deal struck, if Congress does not finalize a resolution, rail workers would go on strike December 9, a reality that could upend supply chains across the U.S. right before the holidays. Our rail systems move about 40% of all goods when measured by weight. A strike could cost the economy some $2 billion per day.

On Wednesday, the House passed two separate binding resolutions. One replicates the deal struck in September, with no added sick days, and is expected to pass the Senate. The other includes seven sick days, and passed the House by a smaller margin than the initial deal, so its fate in the Senate is much less certain. There was bipartisan griping about a congressional intervention, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) expressing disappointment in Biden's decision to turn to Congress and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) saying he would reject any deal that workers did not agree to.

"As a proud pro-labor President, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement," Biden said in a statement. "But in this case — where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families — I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal."

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions from the left and right, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right want Congress to intervene, and are happy Biden is averting a strike.
  • Still, some call out the hypocrisy of Biden turning his back on the unions he says he supports.
  • Others say it's necessary to take care of the American consumer and the vast majority of other workers who would be hurt by a strike.

In The Hill, Gerard Scimeca said Congress should intervene to prevent a strike.

"Congress has clear authority to intervene in such an instance and should do so. Consumers, domestic industries, and our economy cannot weather a rail strike during the holiday season. Congressional action, if needed, would still deliver favorable gains for workers," he wrote. "Since the prospect of a rail strike cropped up in the summer, countless industries have made clear a strike would be unequivocally disastrous. No one understands this more than the White House, which not only brokered the deals but celebrated them in a Rose Garden ceremony.

"All workers are important, but Congress must weigh the actions of the problematic labor unions and their last-minute demands with the millions of workers who would be affected by a strike," Scimeca said. "Why is the deal at hand good enough for most unions, but not a few holdouts? And why would this handful of workers be more important than the millions of workers — many unionized — in industries ranging from agriculture to manufacturing to retail? The answer is obvious and so too is the path for Congress if select unions call for a strike to derail the economy during its busiest season. We have reached the end of the line; federal lawmakers must legislate the framework already signed by a union majority and agreed to by labor leaders, management, and the White House."

The New York Post editorial said Union Joe suddenly turned into Union-Buster-in-Chief.

"President Joe Biden actually cares more about something than Big Labor: himself. He now wants Congress to force rail unions to take a deal and avert a catastrophic strike, even though some unions have already nixed it. What a departure from the collective-bargaining-above-all approach he’s long taken," the board said. "Yet a rail strike now — right before the holidays — would send his approval ratings through the floor. It could put 765,000 people out of work within two weeks, cost the economy $2 billion a day, raise producer prices 4% and even threaten access to vital chemicals needed to ensure clean water and feed for livestock.

"In September, Biden gloated about how the deal he’d secured then proved wrong those who doubted he could head off a strike. Oops: Looks like it didn’t," the board wrote. "But it did score points for Democrats, delaying potential labor action until after the midterms (though perhaps inviting the unions to demand even more). So now Union Joe has suddenly become Union-Buster-in-Chief, asking Congress to force a deal on workers, and to hell with their 'choices.' It’s the correct move: No one wants a rail strike to nuke an already ailing US economy. But it sure would be nice if the prez finally understood that everyday businesses, taxpayers and consumers are also sometimes threatened by greedy unions — and that disputes between management and workers should generally be left to themselves, without Uncle Sam’s thumb on the scale."

The National Review editors said Congress should act to avoid a strike.

"The major questions of labor negotiations — wages and health care — have been settled. (Rail workers get retirement benefits directly from the federal government, and they far exceed Social Security.) The wage increase is the largest ever negotiated under national bargaining. Rail-worker health benefits are classified as Platinum under the Affordable Care Act and are some of the most generous of any private-sector workers in the country," the editors said. "Average annual total compensation (including benefits) for freight-rail workers is $135,700. Approval of the deal would increase it to about $160,000... The [Presidential Emergency Board] had rejected unions’ proposal for 15 days of sick leave nationwide.

"Sick leave is currently negotiated at the local level, not in national bargaining. The PEB recommended it stay there. Sick leave in the rail industry is different than it is in other industries because of the 24/7 nature of the business, but plenty of sick benefits exist," the editors added. "Depending on local agreements, some workers do get an allotted number of sick days... Adopting the [Labor Secretary Marty] Walsh–Biden agreement, which is what Biden called on Congress to do, in no way precludes unions from continuing to negotiate for more sick leave at the local level. The Walsh–Biden agreement is a fair deal, arrived at through the proper procedures, and one that railroads and a majority of unions have accepted."

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left criticize Biden for not backing the labor unions through the toughest part of the negotiations.
  • Some call out how much profit the railway companies make, and how easily they could fund sick days.
  • Others say Biden is missing an opportunity to call for more sick days and paid leave for workers.

In MSNBC, Ryan Cooper said that Biden "picked the wrong side" in the railroad union fight.

"It’s Biden’s most high-profile labor action to date, and over an objectively tiny demand — just four days of sick leave," Cooper wrote. "It also comes at a time of perhaps the greatest surge in labor militancy since the 1930s, when there is a real prospect of a serious union movement after decades of decline. That alone should make standing with the railway workers political gold for Biden. Not only were Democrats very seriously harmed by the decline of labor’s institutional heft, today, unions have a 71% approval rating in a Gallup Poll, the highest figure since 1965 and a 23-percentage-point increase since 2010. That’s probably why opportunists like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., are putting out statements supporting the workers, betting that they will be able to posture as defenders of the working class without actually having to hurt their big-business patrons.

"The labor shortage that railways are struggling with only exists, as Matthew Jinoo Buck reported in detail at The American Prospect, because of decades of consolidation and cost-cutting by rail management," he said. "Over the last several decades, 40 Class I railroad companies merged together into just seven, cut back their investment in spare capacity, and slashed their workforce to the bone — a set of moves they called 'precision scheduled railroading,' or PSR. PSR requires workers to be on call for up to two weeks, around the clock, and work shifts as long as 12 hours... no sick leave means people are coming into work with Covid or other illnesses. All that worsens the disruptions of constant travel associated with driving trains all over the country, making ordinary life stuff like going to the doctor difficult or impossible."

In Popular Information, Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria said Biden was "railroading workers."

"Among 22 highly-developed nations, the United States is the only one that does not require employers to provide paid sick leave. Spain requires 16 days of paid sick leave, Belgium provides at least one month, and the UK guarantees at least 28 weeks. For more than a decade, members of Congress have introduced legislation, the Healthy Families Act, that would require all businesses with at least 15 employees to provide seven paid sick days each year. If the Healthy Families Act were law, there would probably not be a looming strike because the railroad companies would be legally required to provide paid sick leave... Providing 15 days of paid sick leave would cost the industry roughly $688 million per year, according to the rail companies.

"But with railroad profit margins at record highs, this cost would hardly harm profitability," they said. "BNSF, one of the largest railroad freight carriers, saw its net income climb four percent to $4.5 billion in the first nine months of this year. Last year, the railway raked in $6 billion in profits, a 16% jump from the year prior. Its parent company, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, also spent at least $32 billion since last year buying back stock. This tactic, which was considered a form of market manipulation until 1982, drives up stock prices by reducing the number of shares in the market... Last week, Buffett added $1.38 billion to his net worth in a single day after Berkshire Hathaway closed at a high price – that’s twice as much money as it would cost to fund 15 days of paid sick leave for every rail worker in the country."

In The Washington Post, Paul Waldman said Biden is avoiding a railroad strike but missing an opportunity.

"We can use a number of frames to understand this story. 'Clock is ticking toward crisis!' is one. 'Two sides can’t agree' is another. 'Fed up workers demand basic human dignity from rapacious oligarchs' would be another. Would that last one be so inaccurate?" he asked. "For all Biden’s words about his commitment to workers, most Americans can’t see that his presidency has changed anything in the way they relate to their employers. When people start doing only what their jobs require, we wring our hands about 'quiet quitting,' as though we have a moral obligation to give our weekends and evenings to our employers.

"What if he walked out in front of the cameras, called out the rail CEOs by name and brought some good, old-fashioned fire and brimstone? Imagine the response if the president said, 'Lance Fritz, from Union Pacific. You got $14.5 million in compensation last year. Your company made $9.3 billion in profits. You spent $7.3 billion on stock buybacks to juice your share price. And you won’t give the men and women who made that money for you four lousy sick days?'... Biden has talked about dignity at work before; if that seems like a novel concept, it’s because everything about the structuring of the American workplace works against it. And yes, he has appointed pro-labor people to key jobs in the government and rolled back cruel Trump administration policies. But he needs to use his platform more aggressively — not just from time to time, but all the time."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • This is a big fork in the road for Biden, and he will suffer some consequences for not picking the unions.
  • I don't envy his position, but I think he is missing an opportunity.
  • Fundamentally, asking for four paid sick leave days should not be controversial in our country.

Regardless of how you feel about unions (and my feelings are decidedly mixed), to me, there seems to be an obvious high ground here: Workers should get some paid sick leave that does not require them using vacation days. The absurdly rich executives stopping this deal from happening, and the historically profitable railway companies refusing to allow those sick days, are on the wrong side of history.

That's the fundamental position I'm starting from.

When I think about how to improve our country, I am not arrogant or ignorant enough to only look to my immediate vicinity. We are the wealthiest nation in the world. We are, perhaps, the most innovative. We have one of the strongest democratic systems, one that is supposed to empower its citizens. And we have one of the most robust economies ever made. So, if we see other countries doing things better than we do, we should try to emulate them.

Right now, there are a number of other countries I'd rather be a worker in than the United States. As many commentators above pointed out, we are unique in our stinginess on paid sick leave. Many other countries give workers months of paid time off for child care or to take care of a sick relative. Nearly all other wealthy developed nations have legal requirements for paid sick leave. Countries like Australia, France, Britain and Germany guarantee 20 or more paid vacation days on top of holidays off. In this context, what the railroad workers are asking for is more than reasonable.

And yes, the railroad companies can more than afford it.

There has been a lot of talk in our country recently about the anti-establishment movement. The working class vs. the corporate elite. The little guy fighting for their jobs back, their dignity back, taking one off from the "elites" running the country. This rhetoric has been embraced by the Trump-right and progressive left. Well... what is a better opportunity than this?

Yes, some railway workers making $115,000 or $150,000 may be the envy of other blue collar Americans, but railroad work has extremely stringent demands most workplaces don’t. And if Union Pacific, the largest railroad in the country, went from $6.5 billion to $5.8 billion in yearly profit to pay for it, it would cover the entire cost of 15 paid sick days for every railway worker in the country.

They're asking for four.

As Legum and Zekeria noted, Warren Buffett added $1.38 billion to his net worth in a single day after Berkshire Hathaway closed at a high price last week. Berkshire Hathaway owns one of the largest railroad freight carriers in the country. That $1.38 billion alone is twice as much money as the $688 million it'd cost for 15 paid sick days.

They're asking for four.

This story is not a novel one. The railways have restructured, cutting costs, firing people, beefing up corporate profits, and making working conditions more difficult. Their profits have soared, but the job has gotten harder, and our supply chain has been strained. Workers recognize this and want to be better compensated not just in pay, but in working conditions and benefits.

Even when I put on my hard-nosed, no nonsense, anti-union, capitalist cap, which isn’t hard for me to find, there's still a good argument for the workers here: Right now, we're in the midst of a labor shortage. We’re living at a time when Americans are truly understanding the value and importance of our supply chain. The free market has determined that these workers are incredibly valuable, because they'd be nearly impossible to replace.

The workers recognize this, so they are striking (literally) while the iron is hot. If they strike, the country would grind to a halt. They have all the leverage. They know this. The railroad companies know this. The workers have been clear about what they want. And in sheer numbers (as in the total number of workers represented by the unions), they have rejected this deal.

Without big government intervention, the workers could bring the entire supply chain to its knees and force the railroad companies to hand over what they want. But instead, the free market is getting its hands tied behind its back by Congressional legislation. Perhaps this is why we have the unusual spectacle of Senators Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) both calling for Congress to pass the agreement with seven days of paid leave.

Of course, Biden has a responsibility to the rest of the country. I get that. And I agree with many commentators on the right who say he has little choice but to prevent an economic calamity, especially given the moment we're in. These negotiations have gone on for three years and through the normal processes, have landed at a stalemate. The desire to just end this episode is strong, and in many ways I share it.

But that doesn't make it any less frustrating. With the influence of the White House, it's not hard to imagine a world where Biden, the economic forces, and the national pressure push the railroad companies to give workers what they want before a strike even takes place. The pressure and attention would be unprecedented in modern times, and it'd be a win not just for the railroad workers but for the millions of other Americans who want a tiny bit more flexibility in their jobs.

Instead, though, Biden is balking. These are precisely the kinds of tough moments where he promised he would back workers and unions, but he isn't. Whether you agree with Biden's purported pro-union stance, it amounts to reneging on what he said he would do at a fork in the road like this. It may make the rest of our holidays a bit smoother, but the historical record will and should reflect which side he was on when the stakes were the highest.

Your questions, answered.  

Q: Would love to hear your opinion on TikTok. Is it as threatening as some conservatives are making it out to be?

— Suzette from Milford, Ohio

Tangle: On the one hand, there are plenty of signals that you should be wary. If you believe the U.S. government and military knows more than we do, which I do, consider this: The military banned members from using TikTok on government or private devices, full stop. So did the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and a handful of other federal agencies.

On a pure scale level, TikTok is huge: One billion users means a lot of data. And in China, there are clear laws that could compel ByteDance (the company that owns TikTok) to hand that data over to the Chinese government. TikTok has maintained that in the U.S., it is subject to U.S. laws and regulations, but plenty of observers don't think that would stop a handover.

On the other hand, it's not entirely clear what makes TikTok so much more dangerous than other social media platforms. If you are on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, or you share your location data on your phone, your data is already out there. It is already easily accessible and it's buyable. All of us are more vulnerable to the threats TikTok poses than we probably imagine.

To me, the biggest threat of TikTok is just how easily it could be used to push disinformation campaigns. If bad actors wanted to mine U.S. users' data and push influence operations on TikTok, it would be hugely successful and easy to do. Personally, I don't use TikTok, and I think there is enough gray area there that I wouldn't download it. But I also think some of the language around it is hyperbolic, given the platforms most of us already use.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.  

Yesterday, the House Republican Conference changed several of its party’s rules, passing new motions designed by the right flank of the caucus. The conference passed a proposal to require five days’ notice for any bills being considered under fast-track suspension rules in the House, a proposal to require the conference to consider any amendment that has 20% of the conference's support, a proposal to require a party meeting before consideration of any major legislation, and a proposal to expedite internal party motions in the House Republican Conference. Kevin McCarthy, vying for the House Speaker gavel, largely helped build support for the proposals. Punchbowl News has the story.


  • $135,700. The average total annual compensation (including benefits) for freight-rail workers.
  • $160,000. The estimated average total annual compensation (including benefits) for freight-rail workers if they agree to the current deal.
  • 28%. The estimated percent of U.S. freight transported by the railways before the pandemic, including coal, lumber, ore and chemicals.
  • 40%. The estimated percent of U.S. freight transported by truckers.
  • 460,000. The estimated number of additional long-haul trucks the country would need if the freight rails shut down.
  • 8. The number of House Democrats who voted against the resolution codifying the September agreement in Congress.
  • 129. The number of House Republicans who voted against the resolution codifying the September agreement in Congress.

Have a nice day.

A nine-year-old fourth grader in Wisconsin is being hailed as a hero after saving the life of a classmate who was choking. Essie Collier, a student at Racine's Fratt Elementary School, successfully performed the Heimlich maneuver on a classmate after noticing her in distress during lunch on Tuesday. Samantha Bradshaw, a teacher who witnessed the event, said Essie managed to clear her classmate's airway in a matter of seconds. “I have never seen a student react in that way before,” Bradshaw said. Essie told reporters she learned the technique from a YouTube instructional video when she was seven. AP News has the story.

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