Republicans flirt with economic populism in rail labor conflict


Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio was not a popular figure at the March for Our Lives rally. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

Republicans flirt with economic populism in rail labor conflict

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A key Senate vote over whether to provide paid sick leave for rail workers is highlighting a divide within the GOP, a party that has increasingly tried to position itself as a champion of the working class.

A rail shutdown was averted on Thursday following a labor dispute between rail workers and operators. The Senate voted overwhelmingly to impose a White House-brokered labor deal that grants workers a 24% pay increase over five years, payouts averaging $11,000 upon ratification, and an extra paid day off. Senate passage came one day after the bill easily cleared the House.

But the legislation became a flashpoint over workers’ rights after both chambers were closely divided on a separate proposal to grant rail employees seven days of paid sick leave, up from the one day provided in the White House’s labor deal.

That split largely followed party lines, but most notable was the six Republican senators who voted with Democrats to add the additional days of sick leave, a measure that still failed 52 to 43.

Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), John Kennedy (R-LA), Mike Braun (R-WI), and Josh Hawley (R-MO) voted for the paid leave, bucking the prevailing Republican view that it’s not Congress’s place to rewrite a contract already negotiated by the White House.


“I believe the rail workers are making reasonable requests that should be adequately addressed. For that reason, I voted to increase the number of paid sick days for rail workers,” Cruz said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the Senate rejected this measure, so I opposed the final deal.”

Rubio has become a prime example of the rise of economic populism in the Republican Party, saying ahead of the vote that he would not back any deal that lacks the support of rail workers.

“Just because Congress has the authority to impose a heavy-handed solution does not mean we should. It is wrong for the Biden Administration, which has failed to fight for workers, to ask Congress to impose a deal the workers themselves have rejected. I will not vote for any deal that does not have the support of the rail workers,” Rubio said in a statement Wednesday.

The senior senator from Florida was the first high-profile Republican lawmaker to support a growing push to unionize at Amazon and has called for a federal investigation into the company’s labor practices. But his lifetime AFL-CIO rating is 11%.

He frequently takes shots at union leaders and in the past co-sponsored legislation opposing union bargaining rights and voted against paid leave provisions. Now, he’s attempting to thread the needle on labor rights, slamming union bosses while also emphasizing he stands with workers.

“Union bosses & Biden sold out the workers to make a deal. Tens of thousands of workers rejected their deal,” he wrote on Twitter Thursday.

Hawley recently said the “old Republican Party is dead,” arguing the GOP must represent “America’s working people.” Hawley joined Cruz and Rubio in opposing the Biden-endorsed agreement but supported the separate provision to add more sick leave.

The move comes amid a rise in economic populism in the GOP, Republican strategist John Feehery told the Washington Examiner. Even as the party writ large is generally supportive of the business community, an insurgent crop of Republican lawmakers is pursuing a more working-class-friendly agenda, including support for more noncollege pathways to work and pro-family tax credits.

“There is a desire to expand the working class appeal to the Republican Party,” Feehery said. “I do think a lot of union workers support Republicans, especially if they are not in the SEIU or the education unions.”

Neither Cruz nor Rubio has ruled out a presidential run in 2024, which could be shaping their views, Feehery said. The support former President Donald Trump received from non-college-educated voters has in part spurred the reevaluation within the GOP.

“If they are real working-class people, they probably like the Republican Party. I think that definitely is something that Republicans are thinking about. I think you’re going to see a lot of strange bedfellows in the next couple of years as we get closer to the election,” Feehery said.


The labor deal negotiated by President Joe Biden in September was rejected by four freight rail unions, a rare rift between Democrats and organized labor. Feehery believes some of the Republican objections to the initial agreement are intended to highlight what he calls the “incompetence of the Biden administration.”

“I don’t think Republicans are really in the business of bailing out Biden’s administration,” he said. “This is something the Biden administration is supposed to take care of. They are the ones who have the relationships with the union. I think you’re seeing some Republicans trying to capitalize on that.”

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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