Right-wing media turn unsustainable conditions for freight rail workers into a political football

With a potential freight rail strike on the horizon, some in right-wing media attacked union workers and criticized the Biden administration for handling the conflict at taxpayers' cost

A screencapture of a Laura Ingraham segment with the headline "An America In Decline"

Over the past week, right-wing media used the potential freight rail strike to attack union workers and the Biden administration, ignoring the myriad reasons for the unions to call for a strike. 

For the past two years, major freight railways and railroad workers' unions have been locked in a heated contract dispute. In mid-July, President Joe Biden signed an executive order establishing a presidential emergency board to “help resolve an ongoing dispute between major freight rail carriers and their unions.” Although the presidential emergency board proposed to meet some of the union's demands — such as pay increases and additional bonuses — it still failed to adequately support demands like adding a more thorough and less punitive leave policy. Rail workers currently have no sick days, and the standing attendance system penalizes workers who are sick or attending to family emergencies. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh also worked closely with negotiators to prevent a lockout or worker strike, but the union authorized a strike starting September 16 after nearly 5,000 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers voted to reject a tentative contract. While the strike has been temporarily suspended with another tentative agreement, some railway workers are claiming that it does not solve the problem. 

Large railroad companies such as Union Pacific have made billions of dollars in profits in recent years, while their workers are “completely demoralized” by the scheduling system and workload. Freight rail workers have described their job as exhausting and punishing, with one worker telling Vice News that they had “lost any reason to live” working on the railways. Union workers want better working conditions and pay and are demanding companies fix the punitive attendance policy, which has hampered workers' abilities to live normal lives. 

Right-wing media have been scapegoating unions for years, a tactic that has gotten worse in the past year of explosive organized labor activity. In 2021, right-wing media attacked unions for issues ranging from supply-chain disruptions to the supposed “indoctrination” of public school children. Outlets like Fox News also underreport or attack workers’ attempts to unionize in massive corporations. 

Conservative media’s refusal to empathize with the plight of the freight rail workers is another example of their unrelenting war on unions. Over the past week, right-wing media accused unions of negotiating a deal at the expense of taxpayers and slammed the Biden administration for its handling of the potential strike:

Arguing the compromise is a “sweetheart deal” for unions at the cost of taxpayers

  • On Twitter, Daily Wire host Ben Shapiro complained about the compromise between rail companies and workers, suggesting that the Democratic Party and unions are conspiring to “force through an absolute sweetheart deal for unions” that boosts Democrats’ electoral favorability at a cost to taxpayers.
  • On the September 15 edition of Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy complained that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was mindlessly acquiescing to worker demands: “Bernie Sanders said just give them anything they want. The railroads are making lots of money; give them what they want.” Co-host Brian Kilmeade called Sanders “a guy who has never negotiated anything,” saying “the art of Bernie’s deal” is “give them everything they want.”
  • One America News Network reporter Tom McGrath claimed on September 16 that Biden had “cough[ed] up taxpayer money to end a hostage situation with rail workers unions.” McGrath also cited Shapiro’s tweet to suggest that Democrats and unions are strategically collaborating, resulting in an “exorbitant deal to the union” and a political victory for Democrats “all at the expense of the taxpayer.” 

Attacking the Biden administration for its handling of the freight rail conflict

  • On the September 14 edition of her prime-time program, Fox News host Laura Ingraham mocked Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, asking Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), “Are you confident that old Mayor Pete, senator, is going to be able to handle this rail strike? Last time I checked he’s looking for somewhere to plug in his EV or hop on his bike and bike to work or something. That's cute, but it doesn’t really solve the energy problems.” 
  • A September 16 Washington Examiner opinion piece titled “Amtrak Joe and Amtrak Pete go off the rails” slammed Biden for “caving to the far-left eco-wing of his activist base” and putting the country at risk of “another unexpected crisis.” The op-ed framed Biden as procrastinating on acting to avoid a strike, claiming he “didn’t start paying attention to this looming crisis until its urgency became imminent.”
  • Listing the potential ramifications of a rail strike during the September 15 edition of her radio show, right-wing host Dana Loesch asked, “Where in the world is our transportation secretary?” Loesch also claimed that “the administration totally caved” to the workers’ demands. 
  • In a September 14 piece, Breitbart’s Joel Pollak fixated on Biden and Buttigieg attending an auto show to promote electric vehicles over the weekend and “boast about their infrastructure policies, even as a massive rail strike looms that could shut down freight and some passenger traffic.” 
  • In a September 14 article for National Review titled “Where to Point Fingers If a Freight-Rail Strike Cripples the Economy," Dominic Pino wrote: “If unions and carriers are unable to make a deal, and Congress doesn’t step in to prevent a strike, the economic consequences that follow will be on the Democrats and their union allies.”