Why Is ‘Pro-Union’ President Biden Pushing a Labor Deal That Rail Workers Rejected?

While the Biden administration is seeking to avert a strike by backing a contract over union objections, Bernie Sanders and other progressives made a last-ditch effort to win guaranteed paid sick leave.

Jeff Schuhrke

(Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Update: On Thursday, the Senate voted 80 to 15 to pass a bill preempting a railroad strike by imposing the unpopular tentative agreement. Ten Republicans, four Democrats, and independent Senator Bernie Sanders voted against the measure. President Biden is expected to sign the bill into law before the end of the week. The Senate also voted down a separate resolution calling for the addition of seven days of paid sick leave for rail workers. It needed at least 60 votes to pass, but only received 52. Six Republicans voted in favor, and one Democrat--Sen. Joe Manchin--voted against it.

With a nationwide railroad strike set to begin as early as December 9, congressional leaders and President Joe Biden are scrambling to take away the right of over 100,000 rail workers to withhold their labor by imposing a contract that most of these workers voted to reject. But progressives on Capitol Hill are attempting to partially meet the workers’ central demand of guaranteed paid sick leave — a benefit they currently don’t have.

At a time of record profits in the rail industry, it’s unacceptable that rail workers have zero guaranteed paid sick days,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said on Twitter. It’s my intention to block consideration of the rail legislation until a roll call vote occurs on guaranteeing seven paid sick days to rail workers in America.”

The maneuvering in Washington this week comes after nearly three years of union negotiations with the nation’s highly profitable rail carriers. Ahead of a previous strike deadline in September, a tentative, five-year agreement was brokered with the help of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and with Biden’s personal involvement. 

But since then, members of four unions representing 55% of the national rail workforce voted to reject the agreement, citing the deal’s failure to provide adequate sick leave and improve unpredictable scheduling — opening the possibility of next week’s strike.

On Monday, after over 400 trade groups publicly urged federal intervention to preempt a strike, Biden called on Congress to exercise its power under the 1926 Railway Labor Act to override the four unions’ votes and impose the September agreement without any modifications.”

Notably, Congress can force a contract that goes beyond the tentative agreement and provides conditions more favorable to rail workers, but the president explicitly urged lawmakers not to do that.

Some in Congress want to modify the deal to either improve it for labor or for management,” Biden said. However well-intentioned, any changes would risk delay and a debilitating shutdown.”

Biden, who campaigned in 2020 on a promise to guarantee at least seven paid sick days to all U.S. workers, added, I share workers’ concern about the inability to take leave to recover from illness or care for a sick family member.”

In a blistering statement, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division — one of the unions that voted down the September deal — said: It is not enough to share workers’ concerns.’ A call to Congress to act immediately to pass legislation that adopts tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave ignores the Railroad Workers’ concerns.”

Joe Biden blew it,” said Hugh Sawyer, an Atlanta-based locomotive engineer. 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. Sadly, he could not bring himself to advocate for a lousy handful of sick days.”

Sawyer is the secretary-treasurer of Railroad Workers United (RWU), an inter-union, cross-craft network of rail unionists that led the rank-and-file opposition to the September deal. 

Meanwhile, the Association of American Railroads — the largest rail industry trade group which has spent over $3.5 million in lobbying this year alone—praised Biden for moving to block a work stoppage.

Congressional leaders from both parties met with the president on Tuesday and said they would fast-track his request to force the tentative deal and stop a strike, but Sanders and progressive Democrats insisted that any such legislation include at least seven days of paid sick leave (although the unions have been demanding 15 days).

High-profile labor leaders like Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson and Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien quickly expressed support for Congress to include sick leave. After more than 24 hours of noticeable silence, the AFL-CIO — whose leadership is close to Biden — also joined the push for adding sick leave.

In response, and with the approval of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put forward two separate measures: a bill to preempt the strike and impose the September deal as it is, and a separate resolution granting rail workers seven paid sick days. 

Both measures passed on Wednesday. The bill to block a strike and force the unpopular agreement onto rail workers passed 290 to 137, with eight Democrats and 129 Republicans voting against it. The separate measure to tack on paid sick days passed 221 to 207, with only three Republicans voting in favor.

The two measures now head to the Senate, where they will both need at least 60 votes to pass. Some Senate Republicans like Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — who have attempted to rebrand the GOP as a party of the working class — have expressed reluctance to impose a contract but have shown uncertainty about whether they will get behind adding paid sick leave. 

It would be hard for me to understand how you can be talking about a Republican working-class party if you’re not going to vote to support paid guaranteed sick leave for railroad workers who today have none,” Sanders told HuffPost. Sanders joined 11 Democratic colleagues in the Senate who released a statement Wednesday calling for passage of both bills.

In his first statement after Wednesday’s House votes, Biden urged the Senate to quickly pass the legislation preempting a strike but said nothing of the effort to add sick leave.

Because the two measures passed by the House are separate and not fused together as a single piece of legislation, it is conceivable that the Senate will pass the bill that imposes the September agreement and blocks a work stoppage, then vote down the resolution to add seven paid sick days. A vote could come as soon as Thursday. 

Except for a handful of progressives — notably Bernie Sanders — who have shown their willingness to fight for us, the entire political machine must be changed,” said Gabe Christenson, a rail conductor in Nevada and RWU co-chair. While this latest turn of events is disheartening and most definitely is a setback, railroad workers will continue to fight for what we deserve.”

Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.

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