President Joe Biden was in the unusual position Tuesday of being praised by business interests and attacked by his normal allies in the labor movement after calling for Congress to move immediately to block a strike by more than 100,000 union members at the nation’s freight railroads set for the end of next week.
The move was a serious setback for the unions, who say they needed the right to strike in order to get railroad management to negotiate over their major demand to give workers sick days that are not in the current contracts. They say the railroads, many of which reported record profits last year, are enjoying even stronger profits this year and can afford to meet the union’s demands.
Biden said he is sympathetic to the union’s demand, but he said a rail strike would cause too much economic damage and must be avoided.
“I share workers’ concern about the inability to take leave to recover from illness or care for a sick family member,” he said in his statement. “No one should have to choose between their job and their health – or the health of their children.”
He said that the tentative deals that were rejected by rank-and-file members of the unions were good deals for the workers, even in the face of those concerns. They include 24% wage increases over the four-year life of the deals, the biggest pay increases won by the unions in more than 50 years. Biden pointed out that union leadership had agreed to the tentative deals in September when they were negotiated and called them good deals for the rank-and-file members.
Union anger at deals, and at Biden
But the membership of four of the unions rejected the tentative deals. The other eight unions are prepared to honor their picket lines and go on strike as well without a deal or Congressional action, and Biden’s voiced sympathy for the demands about sick time didn’t satisfy some of the union leaders Tuesday.
“It is not enough to ‘share workers’ concerns,’” said a statement from the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division, which represents about 23,000 track maintenance workers, making it the third largest rail union. “A call to Congress to act immediately to pass legislation that adopts tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave ignores the railroad workers’ concerns.”
Other union officials also were critical of Biden’s move to impose the unpopular contracts. Asked by CNN if he felt Biden had let down unions and their members, Michael Baldwin, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, replied, “Yes, to some extent.”
“We’re trying to address the issue here of sick time. It’s very important,” Baldwin told CNN Tuesday. “This action prevents us from reaching the end of our process, takes away the strength and ability that we have to force bargaining or force the railroads to…do the right thing.”
Baldwin said the unions do not want to go on strike, but it’s the only way to win deals at the negotiating table that would have the support of rank-and-file members.
He said if there is a strike it would be the fault of railroad management, not the unions.
“The railroads have the ability to fix this problem If they would come to the table and do that, we could move forward without Congressional action,” he said.
He said this is an issue that the rail unions have been seeking to address for decades, but it has received more attention from membership recently.
“This became a glaring issue during the pandemic when we had members who were forced by their employers, the railroads, to stay home and quarantine without pay,” he said. “But really it comes down to simple things like the flu for a day or two, or a sick child, and the ability to take a day or two paid.”
While the leadership of the unions were unhappy with Biden, some of the rank-and-file members were far more angry.
“Joe Biden blew it. He had the opportunity to prove his labor-friendly pedigree to millions of workers by simply asking Congress for legislation to end the threat of a national strike on terms more favorable to workers,” said Hugh Sawyer, treasurer of the Railroad Workers United, a caucus of union activists that had been campaigned against ratification of the tentative labor deals. “Sadly, he could not bring himself to advocate for a lousy handful of sick days. The Democrats and Republicans are both pawns of big business and the corporations.”
Any legislation to stop workers from going on strike needed to be passed with bipartisan support, though, so it’s not clear that an effort to impose a more labor-friendly contract would have been able to get the Republican votes it would need to pass the Senate.
Business groups relieved
While union leaders were attacking Biden, business groups were praising his call for Congressional action, saying a strike would be a serious blow to the economy by bringing 30% of the nation’s freight movements grinding to a halt.
A strike, set for December 9, would snarled still-struggling supply chains and caused shortages and a spike in prices gasoline, food, automobiles and other goods, causing a body blow for the economy that many fear is already at risk of tipping into a recession. A week-long strike could cost the economy $1 billion, according to an estimate from Anderson Economic Group. The White House estimated that as many as 765,000 workers could temporarily be out of work within two weeks if the rail workers went on strike.
More than 400 business groups had joined Monday to plead with Congressional leaders on Monday for quick action. Several echoed those concerns Tuesday at a press conference organized by the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s trade group. They all praised Biden’s action, calling it appropriate.
“Truly the only thing standing in the way of insuring the American economy doesn’t take a major hit is the United States Congress,” said Mike Sommers, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, a lobbying group for the oil industry that depends on rail shipments, who has clashed with Biden over high gasoline prices over the course of the last year.
Biden and Democrats had been unwilling to block a strike in September when negotiations were nearing a previous strike deadline. As another strike deadline approaches, they felt there was no choice but to act.
Railroads poised to get what they want
Biden’s statement Monday night suggested that railroad strategy had worked.
“During the ratification votes, the Secretaries of Labor, Agriculture, and Transportation have been in regular touch with labor leaders and management. They believe that there is no path to resolve the dispute at the bargaining table and have recommended that we seek Congressional action,” he said.
“As a proud pro-labor President, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement,” he said. “But in this case – where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families – I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.”
The fact that Congress will move to impose the rejected tentative deals could be considered a limited victory for the unions: Congress could have instead voted to impose contracts that were worse off for the workers than the ones their members rejected.
Republicans in Congress who had introduced legislation before a September strike deadline to keep workers on the job were looking to impose a contract that would have been worse for union members, one based on recommendations of a panel that had been named this summer to try to reach a deal acceptable to both sides. The unions had been able to negotiate improvements in that proposal at the negotiating table in September.
The unions meanwhile are calling for Congress to include sick days in any contract imposed on the unions. They say that will be better for both workers and rail customers who have regularly complained over poor service that even the railroads admit is inadequate.
“Passing legislation to adopt tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave for railroad workers will not address rail service issues,” said the BMWED’s statement. “Rather, it will worsen supply chain issues and further sicken, infuriate, and disenfranchise railroad workers as they continue shouldering the burdens of the railroads’ mismanagement.”
But Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the only legislation that can get through a narrowly divided Congress in time to avert a strike is one that mirrors the rejected tentative agreements.
“Some in Congress want to modify the deal to either improve it for labor or for management,” said Biden’s statement. “However well-intentioned, any changes would risk delay and a debilitating shutdown. The agreement was reached in good faith by both sides.”