Moving with unusual alacrity last week, the Democrat-controlled Congress passed a bill imposing new terms of employment on the railroad industry. The bill averted a nationwide strike that could have shut down broad swaths of the economy. There is no mystery to why Democrats were keen to avoid the strike: economic chaos is never a political selling point, and it is even less so during the holiday shopping season. More difficult to explain, however, was Democrats’ willingness to ignore the wishes of unions. Unions—one of their most reliable constituencies—vehemently opposed the deal. But Democrats voted for it anyway, and by wide margins. Puzzling at first, this disconnect can be explained by political realism. Saying nice things about unions costs Democrats nothing. But when they have to choose between supporting unions and winning elections, they pick the latter every time.

The controversy grew out of a dispute between national rail carriers and twelve major labor unions. Together, the unions represent about 100,000 workers. Their contracts expired in 2020, and they had been bargaining for new deals ever since. Talks broke down over the summer, when they hit an impasse over wages and sick leave. The National Mediation Board offered binding arbitration, but the unions refused. They instead signaled that they planned to strike.

Facing a tough election in a bad economy, President Biden stepped in. He created a Presidential Emergency Board, which proposed a compromise deal. The Board’s deal offered workers a 24% wage increase, lump-sum payments, better health-insurance benefits, and additional paid time off. Eight unions accepted and ratified it. But the four biggest unions—representing more than half of the workers—voted it down. They again prepared to strike as soon as December 9.

Unwilling to let that happen, the President intervened again. He asked Congress to pass a law enacting the Board’s proposal. Lawmakers quickly obliged: Within days, they pushed a bill through both houses. And while progressives offered a separate bill giving workers more sick leave, that bill fell short in the Senate.

Union leaders howled. They called the deal a usurpation: just when their leverage was at its peak, they had been forced to accept terms they’d already rejected. And they were particularly galled by the President’s involvement. Biden had famously pledged to be the most pro-union president in history. But when push came to shove, he sided with industry. Union leaders saw that reversal as nothing less than a betrayal.

The whole saga underscores a long-running disconnect between Democrats’ rhetoric and their action on union issues. Over the last twenty years, Democrats have repeatedly promised to help revive the labor movement. In 2009, they introduced the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a law that would have replaced most secret-ballot elections with card checks. And in 2019, they proposed the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, the biggest labor-law reform in fifty years. Both bills enjoyed significant union support and would have vastly expanded union power. But neither passed. Democrats proved unwilling to jam the EFCA through the Senate, and they repeated that performance with the PRO Act. In prior elections, unions had worked for Democrats, bought into to their rhetoric, and contributed to their campaigns. Yet even after putting their allies in power, they still came up short. They were the Charlie Brown to the Democrats’ Lucy—and labor reform was their football.

And so it was again with the railroad deal. Faced with a choice between union priorities and political expediency, Democrats chose the latter. They were willing to support unions only as long as they paid no political cost. But here, the cost was obvious. A strike could have tied up essential goods and materials, such as building supplies, sanitation chemicals, and food. That risk terrified Democratic leadership. The President warned that if the workers struck, grocery shelves would go bare. Chuck Schumer said that suppliers were already starting to shut down. And Nancy Pelosi predicted that the economy would shed up to 750,000 jobs. With inflation already at record levels, Democrats knew voters wouldn’t stand for the disruption. So they chose politics over partners and let unions down again.  

This lack of fidelity seems odd on the surface, but it has systemic explanations. Today, Democrats have fewer incentives to enact pro-union policies than they’ve had in decades. Since the 1950s, union membership has steadily declined. At mid-century, more than a third of non-farm workers belonged to a union; today, the rate is 10.6%. And if you look only at the private sector, the rate falls to 6.2%. Unions simply no longer have the weight of numbers they once did. And at the same time, work stoppages have plummeted. In 1947, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded 270 stoppages involving more than 1,000 employees each. By 2020, that number had fallen to 8. Whereas big strikes once plagued the American economy, they are now a thing of the past—a vague impression on the public memory.

Those changes have affected the political calculus. Perhaps because people rarely experience labor disruptions, they view unions more favorably. Gallup reports that in 2022, unions’ public approval climbed to 71%—the highest ever tracked. Those kinds of numbers make it easy for Democrats to talk up union priorities. But paradoxically, union priorities are less relevant to most voters than ever. Few voters even know a union member, much less understand what a massive work stoppage would mean. They are less familiar with unions, less versed with their downsides, and so less prepared to pay the costs.

Democrats, then, are left in a state of labor-policy dissonance. They continue to offer lip service to union rights. And they pay no cost for doing so: words are free, and most voters like unions in the abstract. But enacting union priorities is another story. Democrats know, or at least suspect, that voters wouldn’t stand for a return to the bad old days of industrial disruption. So they say one thing and do another. They talk about a revived labor movement while voting with the status quo. And while they’ve kept up that balancing act for decades now, it remains to be seen how much longer they can manage it. If labor’s reaction to the railway deal is any evidence, the act may finally be wearing thin.  

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