President Joe Biden was in the unusual position on Tuesday to be praised by business interests and attacked by his normal allies in the labor movement after calling on Congress to move immediately to block a strike by more than 100,000 trade unionists to the country’s freight railways scheduled for the end of next week.
The move was a serious setback for unions, who say they needed the right to strike to get railroad management to negotiate their main demand to give workers sick leave that is not on the current contracts. They say the railroads, many of which reported record profits last year, are even profiting higher profits this year and can afford to respond to union demands.
Biden said he supported the union’s demand, but he said a railroad strike would cause too much economic damage and should be avoided.
“I share workers’ concern that they cannot take time off to recover from illness or care for a sick family member.r,“, he said in his press release. “No one should have to choose between their job and their health – or the health of their children.”
He said the interim deals that were rejected by rank-and-file union members were good deals for workers, even in the face of these concerns. They include wage increases of 24% over the four-year duration of the agreements, the largest wage increases won by unions in more than 50 years. Biden pointed out that union leaders agreed to the tentative agreements in September during their negotiation and called them good deals for rank-and-file members.
But the membership of four of the unions rejected the tentative agreements. The other eight unions are prepared to picket and strike as well without agreement or congressional action, and Biden has expressed sympathy for the sick leave demands. did not satisfy some union leaders on Tuesday.
“It is not enough to ‘share workers’ concerns,'” said a statement from the Division of Employees of the Way Maintenance Brotherhood, which represents approximately 23,000 track maintenance workers, making makes the third largest railway union. “A call for Congress to act immediately to pass legislation that adopts tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave ignores the concerns of railroad workers.”
Other union officials also criticized Biden’s decision to impose the unpopular contracts. Asked by CNN if he thinks Biden has let down unions and their members, Michael Baldwin, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, replied: “Yes, to some extent.”
“We are trying to solve the sick leave problem here. It’s very important,” Baldwin told CNN on Tuesday. “This action prevents us from reaching the end of our process, takes away the strength and ability we have to force negotiation or force the railways to… do the right thing.”
Baldwin said unions don’t want to strike, but it’s the only way to get deals at the bargaining table that would have the support of rank-and-file members.
He said that if there was a strike, it would be the fault of the railway management, not the unions.
“The railroads have the ability to fix this problem. If they came to the table and did this, we could move forward without congressional action,” he said.
He said it was a problem that railway unions had been trying to solve for decades, but had received more attention from members recently.
“It became a glaring issue during the pandemic when we had members who were forced by their employers, the railroads, to stay home and self-quarantine without pay,” he said. . “But really it boils down to simple things like the flu for a day or two, or a sick child, and the possibility of taking a paid day or two.”
As labor leaders attacked Biden, business groups praised his call for action from Congress, saying a strike would deal a serious blow to the economy by stopping 30% of the nation’s freight movements.
A strike, scheduled for December 9, would have scolded still-struggling supply chains and caused shortages and soaring prices of gasoline, food, automobiles and other goods, causing a blow to the economy that many already fear fall into a recession. A one-week strike could cost the economy $1 billion, according to an estimate by Anderson Economic Group. The White House has estimated that up to 765,000 workers could be temporarily out of work within two weeks if railroad workers go on strike.
More than 400 business groups had joined as of Monday plead Monday with congressional leaders for quick action. Several echoed those concerns Tuesday at a news conference hosted by the Association of American Railroads, the industry trade group. They all praised Biden’s action, calling it fitting.
“Really, the only thing keeping the American economy from taking a major hit is the United States Congress,” said Mike Sommers, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, a lobby group for the United States. oil industry which depends on rail. deliveries, who has clashed with Biden over high gas prices over the past year.
Biden and the Democrats had been does not want to block a strike in September as negotiations neared a previous strike deadline. As another strike deadline approached, they felt there was no choice but to act.
Biden’s statement Monday night suggested the rail strategy had worked.
“During the ratification votes, the Secretaries of Labor, Agriculture and Transportation have been in regular contact with union leaders and management. They believe there is no way to resolve the dispute at the bargaining table and recommended that we seek congressional action,” he said.
“As a proud pro-worker president, I hesitate to overrule the ratification procedures and the opinions of those who voted against the deal,” he said. “But in this case — where the economic impact of a shutdown would harm millions of other workers and families — I think Congress needs to use its powers to pass this deal.”
The fact that Congress decides to impose the rejected tentative agreements could be seen as a limited victory for the unions: instead, Congress could have voted to impose contracts that are less beneficial to workers than those their members rejected.
Republicans in Congress who had introduced legislation ahead of the September strike deadline to keep workers on the job were seeking to impose a contract that would have been worse for union members, based on recommendations from a panel that had been appointed this summer to try to reach an agreement acceptable to both parties. The unions were able to negotiate improvements to this proposal at the bargaining table in September.
Unions are calling on Congress to include sick leave in any contract imposed on unions. They say it will be better for rail workers and customers who have regularly complained about a mediocre service that even the railways admit as insufficient.
“Passing legislation to enact tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave for railroad workers will not solve rail service problems,” the BMWED statement said. “On the contrary, it will exacerbate supply chain problems and further sicken, infuriate and deprive railway workers as they continue to shoulder the burden of mismanagement on the railways.”
But Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have said the only legislation that can be passed in time by a tightly divided Congress to avoid a strike is one that reflects rejected tentative agreements.
“Some in Congress want to change the deal to make it better either for labor or for management,” Biden’s statement said. “No matter how well intentioned, any change would risk causing delays and a debilitating shutdown. The agreement was entered into in good faith by both parties.