Monday, September 19, 2022

WSJ Attacks The Railway Labor Act As "Semi-Fascist"

WSJ  |  To make life easier for the algorithms that will be coming for our jobs, we in the journalism business apply a template to labor disputes: management is bad, labor is good. Joe Biden molds his administration to simple stereotypes too. He defines himself as the most pro-labor president in history. The favor is not returned, apparently.

In the wee hours of Thursday, after anticipatory ripples of destruction were already spreading through the economy, an all-night effort by the White House barely averted a national rail strike, supposedly. The deal was dubbed “tentative,” but expect the unions to approve it. Leveraging the president for one last squeeze of the fruit, after all, was how they planned it from day one.

Mr. Biden’s skin in the game was real, and not just the risk to the economy and inflation but fear of voters going to the polls in a few weeks believing the country was slipping into 1970s-style chaos. But something else about this episode should also be plain: its nuttiness. The angst was absurdly disproportionate to the dollar value of the employee benefits at issue, which concerned sick days. A national crisis was spawned for no better reason than an 88-year-old legal throwback to a bygone era of (to borrow a recent Bidenism) semi-fascist corporatism, which is the exact flavor of the Railway Labor Act amendments of 1934.

This obsolete law forces big government, big labor and big business into bed in a way that hardly makes sense anymore in a mostly free-market economy. If not for the law’s legacy, a nationwide strike encompassing the whole of the rail transportation system (33 private companies) would be all but unthinkable, much less the industry’s leverage to force the White House to dance to the industry’s exceedingly penny-ante economic disputes.

In the briefest recap, under the antiquated railroad law, a Biden-appointed emergency board had already tried to split the difference between the 12 unions and 33 carriers, recommending a 24% pay hike and $5,000 in bonuses.

But rejecting the deal were the important engineers and conductors, who insisted on trying further to leverage Mr. Biden over something called attendance policy, which the board considered outside the negotiation’s statutory ambit.

Trains can’t run if crews don’t show up, at least until algorithms take over their jobs, which is not at all farfetched.

To encourage reliable attendance, railroads use a points system, in which deductions are made when a worker declines an assignment. Decline too many and a worker might be encouraged to realize that railway work, with its scheduling uncertainties and interrupted sleep and social patterns, is not for him or her.

Understandably some workers find the system irksome, but the repeated complaint that employees are being “punished”—i.e., dinged for points—for needing to see a doctor is misleading.

The unions themselves long ago bargained for contract terms that supply paid time off for a prolonged illness but otherwise provide an allotment of voluntary days off that can be used for any reason, including illness or a doctor’s appointment. Mr. Biden’s emergency board saw clearly what was going on. The unions sought an “overly broad and very costly proposal that would create 15 paid days a year that, while nominally labeled as sick leave days, would . . . effectively be personal days that could not be denied for any reason.”

Notice, first of all, that the larger public’s stake in this is nil, even if the misery of rail workers can be exaggerated. Their pay was already over $100,000, and their quit rate less than a third the quit rate of any related industry sector.

The public’s stake becomes decidedly greater than nil only because of a crazy statutory arrangement that virtually required railroad labor and management to take the nation and government as human shields as they battled over the last, dinky sticking point in their contract negotiations, related to time off for medical situations.

This is genuinely ridiculous, though it’s hardly surprising that, with the midterms coming up, the Biden administration felt the better part of valor was to award workers some additional sick days. Yet this week’s outcome almost guarantees that next time the railroads and the unions will be even less likely to reach terms without taking the economy and the occupant of the White House hostage. We’ll be here again. And our leaders probably won’t even get around to asking themselves why this 1930s dynamic still exists in a 21st century economy, like so many arrangements in America that are obsolete yet incapable of reform.

 

 

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