As rail contract negotiations entered a period of crisis in September, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg phoned in from over 3,500 miles away during a vacation in Porto, Portugal, a posh tourist destination best known for its wine production, the Washington Free Beacon has learned.
Buttigieg quietly jetted off to Portugal on Aug. 29, a week before Amtrak began canceling all long-distance trips in preparation of a potentially catastrophic rail strike. The Labor Day weekend travel was a "long-planned personal trip," a Department of Transportation spokeswoman told the Free Beacon, and Buttigieg "remained available and engaged" from Europe.
Hot attractions in Porto include the 18th century Clérigos Tower and the Sé do Porto cathedral. For those who wish to enjoy all the libations Portugal offers, tourists can also spend a day in Porto's sister city Gaia and peruse its celebrated wine cellars.
"As usual, while traveling on personal time he remained available and engaged on urgent issues, which in this case meant multiple calls with staff and stakeholders to work on the topic of rail labor negotiations," the spokeswoman said. Buttigieg returned to the States on Sept. 5, as rail worker unions began prepping for a strike that would have had catastrophic economic consequences.
News of Buttigieg taking a vacation at a time of high-stakes negotiations in the transportation industry comes as he faces anger from rail worker unions over the results of those contract negotiations. Unions' chief demand of paid sick leave was absent from the final contract, which was not reached through an agreement but rather forced through by federal law earlier this month. Though President Joe Biden tapped Buttigieg as one of the administration's leaders for negotiations, the ambitious politician appeared more concerned with campaigning and fundraising for Democratic candidates in the lead-up to the midterm elections than with securing benefits for the unions.
Now it appears that attending his vacation in Europe was also higher on his priority list.
The trip gives fuel to critics who say the administration has abandoned blue-collar workers who helped put Biden in office. Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.), who voted against the rail contract and has urged his party to capitalize on the administration's failed negotiations, said Buttigieg’s decision to fly to Portugal was "a joke."
"Pete Buttigieg will take paid vacation in Europe for days on end but doesn't think rail workers should get more than one day of sick leave," Hawley said.
"This is the same guy who took months of paid leave at the height of the supply chain crisis," he continued, referencing the paternity leave that Buttigieg took after he and his husband adopted children. "If rail workers showed up for work as rarely as Buttigieg does, the country would fall apart."
Three days after Buttigieg returned from Portugal, the Association of American Railroads released a report concluding that a rail strike would cost the U.S. economy more than $2 billion a day.
"Overall, the secretary's work toward helping successfully prevent a rail shutdown included dozens of calls and meetings between April and December," Buttigieg's spokeswoman said.
The White House and Buttigieg's inability to secure paid sick leave for rail workers drew anger from unions across the country. That rail contract not only alienated a critical Democratic constituency as Buttigieg likely plans a bid for higher office, it also provided Republicans with a messaging opportunity.
The reason for Buttigieg's vacation is unclear, although it appears the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., didn't want the public to know about it. Neither Buttigieg, his husband, nor the Department of Transportation made any public announcement or reference to the trip. In fact, Buttigieg maintained a social media presence during his time in Portugal and made it seem like he was traveling in the United States. On Sept. 1, in the middle of his vacation, he posted a "selfie" video of himself speaking from a U.S. airport about a new Department of Transportation airline consumer complaint tool. "If you're traveling this weekend or anytime, know that our department has your back," Buttigieg says in the video.
How Buttigieg traveled to Portugal is a mystery. Since assuming his Transportation post, Buttigieg has taken 18 fights on private jets, according to a report from Fox News.