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Biden avoids rail strike but jeopardizes his union support

Joe Biden exits helicopter
President Biden disappointed some of his organized labor supporters over his intervention in a dispute between railroads and their workers.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)
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President Biden signed legislation imposing a deal he negotiated between freight railroads and organized labor, averting a possible strike but risking a divide with rank-and-file union workers who opposed the settlement.

“It was tough for me,” said Biden at a signing ceremony at the White House on Friday, while heralding the bill as the only option to avert a disastrous work stoppage that would have threatened key supply chains ahead of the Christmas holiday. “It was the right thing to do at the moment, to save jobs to protect millions of working families from harm and destruction, and to keep supply chain stable around the holidays.”

But the president risks alienating labor activists and workers who have long proved key political allies, potentially undermining the relationship between Democrats and the working class and fomenting pressure to deliver on a key promise — expanding paid sick leave — that ranks as unlikely-to-impossible as Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in the new Congress.

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Biden has said labor unions will have to wait to obtain sick leave, which was left out of the contract, but provided no timetable on when he could deliver. Asked when workers could expect those benefits, Biden said: “As soon as I can convince our Republicans to see the light.”

An effort by Democrats to amend the deal to include seven days of paid sick leave for workers came up short when it failed to garner the Republican votes needed in the Senate.

A sick leave amendment pushed by independent
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont received 52 votes, short of the 60 needed to pass.

GOP lawmakers have seized on the dispute to highlight Biden’s rift with organized labor. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley was among the conservative Republicans taking up the workers’ cause, using it to excoriate the White House.

“All these people during COVID work from home all the time, fine,” Hawley told reporters Thursday. “Who knows how many people in the White House are still working from home. And yet if a railway worker wants more than one day of sick leave, oh, oh, my goodness, we couldn’t possibly do that.”

Hawley, along with several other Republicans, voted for the additional sick leave and against legislation to impose the deal, lining up with a handful of Senate liberals such as Sanders and Democrat Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

The vote from GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for paid sick leave led Sanders to joke on the Senate floor, “I knew you were a socialist.”

But Republicans, who largely oppose intervening in labor disputes and who have come out against extending such benefits in the past, are unlikely to provide Biden the help needed to move paid sick leave legislation for rail or other workers in the next Congress.

Biden has called himself the most pro-union president in U.S. history, but his actions over the rail strike threaten to undermine the president and union leaders’ support from rank-and-file workers.

In the months after he personally negotiated the September settlement, four of the 12 unions involved in the negotiation — representing roughly 54,500 workers — rejected the contract. The unions that approved it represent about 43,000 workers, according to the National Railway Labor Conference.

One former union president, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal dynamics, expressed frustration at the AFL-CIO’s lack of involvement, which he saw as a tacit endorsement of Biden’s plan to leave out sick leave.

This week, Congress passed a bill that effectively prohibits U.S. rail workers from going on strike. We dig into the history of an industry where previous work stoppages have turned deadly.

“Biden wouldn’t be out there unless he had the blessing of these unions,” the person said. “This is the difference, as my great-grandmother used to say — time to watch your feet and not your mouth.”

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters said Tuesday it was “deeply disappointed” by Biden’s decision to impose a settlement.

The criticism from unions and progressive Democrats has put Biden on the defensive.

Biden on Friday called the legislation to impose a settlement “a really good bill lacking only one thing.”

The agreement includes a 24% pay raise, an average of $11,000 in back-pay bonuses, an additional day of paid leave and would prevent increased health-insurance premiums.

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said that, ultimately for the administration, the risk of a strike impacting the nation’s food supply and putting the post-pandemic economic recovery in jeopardy outweighed the push to add sick leave to the negotiated deal.

“When you look at what the devastation a national rail strike would cause America, that far outweighs the cost of moving forward,” Walsh said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

An analysis from the Anderson Economic Group projected U.S. workers and consumers could see losses of $1 billion over the first week of a strike.

Walsh defended Biden’s union bona fides, saying that unlike previous cases in which Congress had intervened, the president won significant concessions for workers — including a pay raise, unpaid leave and a preservation of healthcare premiums.

“There’s some very good provisions in the contract,” Walsh said. “It wasn’t like it was a bad contract.”

Still, the Labor secretary said he planned to continue engaging freight rail companies on the issue of paid leave, saying that the two sides didn’t need to wait for the new contract to expire to strike a deal that could improve relations.

“I intend on sitting down with the companies and talking to them about a couple of things that during the negotiations that I heard from the unions,” Walsh said.

The president, joined at the signing by Walsh, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, thanked his team, vowing to redouble his efforts on paid leave.

“They did one heck of a job in averting what could have been a real disaster. And then ended up with a good product. But we still have more work to do, in my view, in terms of ultimately getting paid sick leave not just for rail workers, but for every worker in America,” he said.

Bloomberg writers Ian Kullgren and Jarrell Dillard contributed to this report.


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