Secretary of Transportation and usual media darling Pete Buttigieg faced a rare grilling from center-left media outlets at the end of last week. First, MSNBC’s Alex Wagner confronted the Secretary of Transportation point blank about the administration’s waffling on whether rail workers deserve paid sick leave. “Is it the position of the administration that this deal should not pass without seven days of paid sick leave for rail workers?” Then, Jake Tapper pointed out Buttigieg’s hypocrisy on CNN. “The question is these rail lines, they’re making billions of dollars, profits are up — for all of them, quite a lot in some cases; you and I have paid sick leave…why don’t these railway workers deserve paid sick leave?”
This recent bout of hardball television interviews is revealing. To start, it’s part of a trend that shows growing support for workers and unions (which is well documented). Even a few years ago, last week’s events — a bipartisan majority of both chambers of Congress voting to give workers a better deal than what was negotiated and what the President called on them to pass — would have seemed far-fetched. It would have been equally unlikely for multiple prime time cable news hosts to go after a Democratic cabinet secretary for prioritizing consumers’ short-term welfare over workers’ long-term rights. The resurgence and popular support of labor is real and it’s permeating the mainstream media.
But Buttigieg’s responses were also revealing. Wagner asked him whether the administration wanted Congress to pass the rail contract with or without the amendment adding seven paid sick days — a yes or no question. Buttigieg didn’t answer.
Instead, he declared “So, the position of the administration is that we need to enact this tentative agreement and avoid the possibility of a rail shutdown. I want to make sure it’s understood from a transportation perspective that a rail shutdown wouldn’t just shut down the trains. It would effectively shut down the country.” He later continued: “Bottom line, we have to make sure something gets to the President’s desk quickly because, while the cutoff date is December ninth, you would begin seeing a wind-down…as early as this weekend.”
Wagner, like us, wasn’t pleased with Buttigieg’s answers and doubled back to the actual question: “…I think we can all appreciate the stakes here…I’m just having a hard time understanding where you guys are positioned.” Wagner then asked, ”Will you be encouraging Senate Democrats to pass this with or without the extended sick leave?” Buttigieg, still refusing to give a yes or a no, moved on to what he called the “transportation perspective” — his term for the economic and commercial importance of keeping railroads operating.
Instead of answering a simple question, he provided two other arguments: that the administration wants everyone to get paid sick leave and that they had to work with the political reality of what could make it to President Biden’s desk expeditiously.
Neither of those really answers the question. Supporting better working conditions for all workers is great, but in this context Pete was clearly sidestepping a question about working conditions in this specific context. And of course Biden had to deal with what could actually get passed, but he could have taken the position that he’d like to sign a bill granting more paid sick leave, but would still sign it without the added sick time. He also could have used his bully pulpit as the country’s chief executive and his back-stage muscle as the party leader and President to pressure senators to vote for the amendment.
That transition was especially jarring, considering that Buttigieg, to his credit, has broadened the DOT’s“transportation perspective” to include more than just economic efficiency and profits. This past February, Buttigieg entered into a joint Memorandum of Understanding with Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh to make workers a focal point of transportation policy. Buttigieg’s choice to blithely cast aside labor concerns in favor of the old definition of what transportation was all about represented an opportunistic disavowal of one of his best policy framework changes.
When Tapper asked Buttigieg the same yes-or-no question about the administration’s preferences on railroader sick leave, Tapper got back the same redirection about the administration’s support for universal sick leave. Except on CNN, Buttigieg said the administration preferred universal leave to “picking and choosing one sector over another” — as if fighting for rail workers to get some protection somehow jeopardized getting the same rights for others. As if the US government hasn’t set railroad workers apart from other industries in recent memory. As if Presidents haven’t specifically excluded railroad workers from provisions of sick leave that applied to every other kind of federal contractor!
Tapper was having none of it. He pointed out the difference between “saying that they ought to have paid sick and then getting in there saying to the Warren Buffets of the world ‘give these guys paid sick leave or the White House is going to make you guys…the ones to blame.’” Tapper closed the interview out by quoting a rail worker who felt betrayed and said that Biden helped the corporations as much as a Republican would have. Buttigieg responded by rattling off a list of other pro-labor policies totally unrelated to the worker’s complaint.
In both interviews, Pete said that not everyone got what they wanted. Particularly when talking to Wagner on MSNBC, he called the rail contract a compromise where “none of the parties are completely satisfied or got everything they wanted.”
True, now workers won’t be able to see a doctor if they get sick suddenly, or make sure their children and family members get treatment when they’re injured. But the railroads weren’t able to cut their train crew size in half or continue punishing their employees for seeking medical attention. One side had to forgo what the administration agrees should be a basic right for all people, while the other will only get to exploit people a bit less. It’s hardly an even compromise.
Unfortunately, this equivocation is not an isolated instance. Buttigieg talks a good game, but when it comes time to make a real stand, he too often hedges on protecting workers and the public. It’s easy to support good policy in broad strokes, but the real measure of a policymaker’s political convictions is what they do when specific policies are before them. To be sure, Pete’s answers reflect a broad administration position, but as DOT Secretary he is the face of the reluctance to fight for expanding sick leave for rail workers. Moreover, being one cog of a broader machine is a pretty weak defense when the cog in question brags constantly about his incredible, singular importance to the machine, and is being bred to take over the machine altogether in a few years.
Since his out-of-nowhere presidential run in 2020, Buttigieg has been a darling of the mainstream media. His erstwhile allies on cable news giving him a rare grilling indicates just how broadly support for unions has risen — and how scrupulously people view administration waffling.