Joe Biden took a victory lap last week for averting a rail strike that would have only worsened supply-chain choke points and further accelerated runaway inflation. The White House instructed the union bosses to stand down with midterm elections around the corner. They dutifully complied. Anything to keep Democrats in charge.
But what has he done for them? The rail workers did secure a 24% wage hike over five years and a $1,000 bonus. But these workers hadn’t received a pay hike since before the pandemic. And with inflation running at above 12% over the last 18 months, at the end of the day the workers’ real take-home pay may not rise at all if these price increases continue.
There’s a painful lesson here. History proves again and again that some of the biggest losers from high inflation are union households operating under multi-year contracts.
Back in the 1970s, the last time inflation was this high, the United Auto Workers and other industrial unions flexed their muscle and negotiated three-year wage hikes for their members, similar to the deal the rail workers just signed. Then the auto workers realized they’d been played because near double-digit inflation under President Jimmy Carter eroded all and more of those gains.
The rank and file members lost income even as the union bosses danced a little jig.
When Ronald Reagan entered office and broke the back of inflation, workers reaped big real wage hikes as price increases at the store and the gas pump fell from an annual rate of 12% to just 3.5% within a year and a half. Labor unrest and worker strikes in the 1980s almost disappeared once inflation was tamed.
It wasn’t just the steep interest-rate hikes under then-Fed Chairman Paul Volcker that conquered inflation. The Reagan tax cuts incentivized production, which increased the supply of goods and services on the shelves. Workers benefited mightily.
We saw the same phenomenon under Trump’s presidency. Tax cuts, deregulation and pro-America energy policies kept inflation at 2% for four years. Blue-collar union workers flourished. After inflation, workers earned the annual equivalent of $4,000 more after four years of Donald Trump. One key to Trump’s success: He expanded America’s oil and gas output, which meant tens of thousands of unionized trucking, construction, engineering and drilling jobs with pay up to $100,000 a year.
Is it any wonder Trump became known as the blue-collar president with tremendous support from union households — even as the Big Labor bosses went all in for Biden?
Amazingly, even the miners and pipe-fitters unions endorsed Biden, though he promised to kill coal and natural gas pipelines and the union jobs that went with them. The labor bosses put their allegiance to Democrats ahead of the best interests of their members — many of whom have subsequently lost their jobs.
But the Democrats have put their first allegiance behind the green environmental movement even when it means putting union workers in the energy industry in unemployment lines.
In just two years, all the income gains from the Trump years have been obliterated under the current administration. Real earnings have collapsed since President Biden took office, dropping the annual equivalent of $4,200 from inflation and higher borrowing costs. Union contracts that promised big wage gains have seen workers’ standard of living fall.
The Biden White House could not have been more callous and wrong about inflation. It is not “transitory,” and it certainly is not a “high-class problem.” Ask truckers how they feel about paying $6-a-gallon diesel prices.
It doesn’t matter how many endorsements Biden receives from Big Labor union presidents, who get wined and dined at the White House. America’s private-sector union members are the front-line victims of the president’s multitrillion-dollar spending spree, which lit the forest fire of runaway inflation.
The people who kept our economy from stalling out entirely during the pandemic — nurses, electricians, truckers, miners, autoworkers and rail workers — have gotten poorer every month Biden has been in office. But hundreds of billions of dollars have been channeled into the coffers of Green New Deal operatives.
Don’t be surprised if the Biden Democrats in Congress who voted for this Big Government/radical environmental agenda pay a high price for their betrayal of the working men and women in November’s elections.
Stephen Moore and E. J. Antoni are economists at The Heritage Foundation. Moore is a cofounder of Committee to Unleash Prosperity where Antoni is a senior fellow.