It’s never good when people who spend their entire professional lives studying the subject say you fucked up.

By Aaron Gordon, VICE

On Thursday, the Senate passed legislation by a wide bipartisan margin to impose a contract on freight rail workers that four unions rejected at the White House’s behest. The Senate also did not pass, by a margin of eight votes, additional legislation that would have given freight rail workers seven additional paid sick days, which would have gone some way towards addressing their demands. A group of more than 500 labor historians have signed a letter saying this is a terrible mistake.

rail worker cutting rails

Earlier this week, Tim Barker, a recent PhD graduate from Harvard, and the historian Nelson Lichtenstein at UC Santa Barbara, were among a small group of labor historians upset by President Biden’s call to pass a law that would impose contract terms of freight rail workers. They decided to make a statement “showing that a pretty overwhelming majority of people who have thought about this a lot share a common view on it,” as Barker put it in an interview with Motherboard.

That view, expressed in an open letter to Biden and Secretary of Labor Martin Walsh, was that Biden screwed up. The letter, which Barker helped write, said the historians are “alarmed” by his decision to impose a contract four unions rejected despite the “eminently just demands of the railway workers, especially those that provide them with a livable and dignified work life schedule.” Railroad workers are fighting a corporate regime that has shrunk the industry’s workforce by 30 percent in recent years then blamed crew shortages on the “supply chain” and imposed draconian work schedules that have workers tired, sick, stressed, and unable to spend meaningful time with their friends and families, all while raking in record profits. Four unions have rejected the tentative agreement and freight rail workers generally support a strike because they view the corporate greed motivating these decisions as an existential threat to their industry and the safety and economic security of the American people.

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