Biden draws fire for trying to force railway unions into a deal with management

President Biden meets with congressional leaders at the White House.
President Biden meets with congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
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President Biden’s warm relationship with labor unions is coming under strain, as he pushes Congress to avert a looming railway strike.

The leaders of a dozen unions had struck a tentative deal with railway operators earlier this year, but members of four of those groups, including the largest, voted it down. If the sides can’t come to an agreement by the Dec. 9 deadline, a strike that could upend the economy could occur, slowing the transport of goods, fuel and water as well as passenger rail service on Amtrak.

On Monday evening, Biden released a statement calling on Congress to override negotiations between unions and the operators and force the unions to abide by the earlier agreement.

“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.”

Early in his term, Biden said he intended to be “the most pro-union President leading the most pro-union administration in American history.” Meanwhile, union efforts supporting Democrats contributed to a number of successes for the party in this month’s midterm elections. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she’d take the bill to the floor Wednesday morning, while Senate leaders Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell said they planned on working together to pass it. An emergency board created by Biden in July helped negotiate the deal he is calling on Congress to pass.

Chuck Schumer, in lavender shirt and purple tie, listens as Nancy Pelosi, in orange suit, speaks in front of a bank of microphones.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speak to the media after meeting with Biden at the White House on Tuesday. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

While the deal agreed to by negotiators would have resulted in a pay bump for workers, their primary push has been in regard to paid sick days, scheduling and quality of life. Currently, railway workers have no paid sick days, and while they pushed for 15 in the deal, they were given only one.

After concerns over disciplinary action for doctor’s visits, the agreement allowed for three scheduled medical appointments per year, but only on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and only if scheduled at least 30 days in advance. Unions said congressional action would end their ability to continue negotiating with the railroad operators.

While it’s possible that legislation could amend the deal to include the paid sick days, Biden urged Congress not to meddle with the agreement, saying, “Some in Congress want to modify the deal to either improve it for labor or for management. However well-intentioned, any changes would risk delay and a debilitating shutdown. The agreement was reached in good faith by both sides.”

Biden did not mention that the agreement reached by labor leaders was voted down by thousands of rank-and-file union members. His request was in line with hundreds of major business organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and numerous trade groups across a variety of industries, who called on congressional leaders to approve the deal and avert the strike. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that Biden was “confident” there would be no rail strike.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at the microphone.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at a campaign rally for Democratic candidates in Yonkers, N.Y., on Nov. 6. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., told HuffPost that despite Biden’s call to adopt the agreement as is, she was working with Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, to get more sick leave for the workers, saying, “I’m hopeful we can guarantee them a week of sick days, and I’m working with Sen. Sanders and others to get that done.” Sanders said he planned to force a vote on sick leave for workers.

In a statement Tuesday, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division said it was “deeply disappointed” in Biden’s position.

“It is not enough to ‘share workers’ concerns,’” the BMWED said. “A call to Congress to act immediately to pass legislation that adopts tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave ignores the Railroad Workers’ concerns. It both denies Railroad Workers their right to strike while also denying them of the benefit they would likely otherwise obtain if they were not denied their right to strike. “

Michael Baldwin, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, told CNN that he felt Biden had let down unions and their members “to some extent.”

“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,” Baldwin 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.”

Several Democratic members of Congress expressed their opposition to a deal that didn’t include paid sick leave.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman speaks, with the Capitol in the background.
Rep. Jamaal Bowman outside the U.S. Capitol on June 8. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“Railroad workers grind themselves to the bone for this country as their labor produces billions for Wall St,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said in a retweet of Biden. “They demand the basic dignity of paid sick days. I stand with them. If Congress intervenes, it should be to have workers’ backs and secure their demands in legislation.”

“Rail workers can't schedule getting the flu on a Tuesday 30 days in advance,” wrote Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y. “What we're seeing is an inhumane deal being pushed onto workers even after a majority voted it down. If we are a pro-labor party, we must stand up for them. They need paid sick leave now.”

“All workers — including railroad workers — deserve paid sick leave,” said Rep. Chuy Garcia, D-Ill., in a tweet last week. “Forcing workers to come in sick and exhausted is irresponsible and dangerous. Railroad workers keep our country moving, and we cannot continue treating them like they are expendable.”

The White House even found itself being attacked from the right, with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., releasing a statement in which he said, “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.”

Sen. Marco Rubio walks down a corridor in the Capitol talking, as a reporter holds up her cellphone to record him.
Sen. Marco Rubio leaves a meeting with Senate Republicans at the Capitol on Nov. 16. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

“This whole episode highlights many of the ongoing problems in our economy,” added Rubio. “On the one hand, Wall Street’s drive for efficiency has turned rail workers into little more than line items on a spreadsheet. On the other hand, you have union leadership so disconnected from its rank and file that they struck a deal their members can’t support.”

In the statement Monday, Biden said he shared “workers’ concern about the inability to take leave to recover from illness or care for a sick family member,” but added, “At this critical moment for our economy, in the holiday season, we cannot let our strongly held conviction for better outcomes for workers deny workers the benefits of the bargain they reached, and hurl this nation into a devastating rail freight shutdown.”