Forgive me for the cliché, but Joe Biden is caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the threatened railroad strike. On one hand, the man who boasts that he is the nation’s most pro-union president ever very much wants to back labor unions and collective bargaining, often in a very visible way. On the other hand, a president who is eager to prevent the economy from sliding into recession fears that a walkout by 115,000 rail workers—a crucial sector of the economy—could not just create havoc for holiday-season shoppers and deliveries, but could also cause major economic damage that pushes the nation into recession.
Strikes often open a Pandora’s box. When workers walk out, no one knows whether the strike will last two days, two weeks, or two months. A rail strike could help the 115,000 freight railroad workers achieve their goals, but at the same time, if the strike lasts two or three months, it could send a shock wave through the nation’s economy that could result in more than 115,000 non-rail workers getting laid off from their jobs. In a pinch like this, what’s a president who cares deeply about American workers to do?
On Tuesday, Biden asked Congress to exercise its powers under the Railway Labor Act to block a strike threatened for December 9. The rail act was enacted in 1926 under President Calvin Coolidge because he and Congress knew how damaging rail strikes could be. Biden is merely doing what many previous presidents have done, using Washington’s powers to block a rail strike. But many labor leaders, union members, and union sympathizers are nonetheless fuming that the self-advertised “most pro-union president ever” is moving to prevent workers from exercising their right to strike while also short-circuiting the collective bargaining process by imposing tentative agreements that the members of four rail unions voted to reject, some of them narrowly (it’s also worth mentioning that members of eight other rail unions voted to ratify that deal).
The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, one of the largest rail unions, said it was “deeply disappointed” by Biden’s move. That union, part of the Teamsters union, criticized Biden for seeking to “den[y] 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.” More than fifty labor historians and counting signed a letter to Biden saying, “We are alarmed by your decision to ask Congress to impose an unfair and unpopular settlement,” which “constitutes a negation of the democratic will of tens of thousands of workers and a subversion of your commitment to a revival of the American union movement.” The historians added, “Instead of imposing a contract that these workers have already rejected, we urge you to put the full force of your Administration behind the eminently just demands of the railway workers, especially those that provide them with a livable and dignified work life schedule.”
Those are words that no president who boasts to be a friend of labor wants to hear. But in confronting the threat of a nationwide rail strike, Biden had made clear that he sees himself as not just a champion of labor unions, but as the president of all Americans and the guardian of a $23 trillion economy with 158 million workers. That helps explain why Biden said in a meeting with Congressional leaders on Tuesday, “It’s not an easy call, but I think we have to do it. The economy is at risk.”
Biden has been harshly criticized for his heavy-handed intervention in the rail dispute—for blocking the rail workers’ threatened strike and for cutting short the unions’ efforts to win a contract provision that most every union member and progressive champions: paid sick days. The rail unions complain bitterly that the rail companies don’t offer their workers paid sick days and that workers can sometimes be disciplined or even fired for taking paid sick days. The rail companies have a complicated point system for which workers lose points every time they take a day off—whether for vacation, a parent’s funeral, or a sick day. After Biden initially called to have Congress impose the tentative agreements, Senator Bernie Sanders said he would oppose that unless the deal guarantees seven paid sick days.
With a strike deadline bearing down on the nation, if Biden and Congressional Democrats wanted to avoid a strike and at the same time address the unions’ concerns about lack of paid sick leave, they had three choices.
First, Biden could ask Congress to vote to push back the date of any strike for several months and then name a new president’s emergency panel and make sure that that panel’s members—unlike the previous presidential panel he appointed—called for paid sick days. The first panel rejected the unions’ demand to go from no paid sick days to fifteen paid sick days a year as too expensive and too much of a burden on the railroads. The Biden administration and some union officials are evidently uncomfortable with this option, first, because it would drag out this long and tense labor dispute even longer, second, because they fear that the rail companies might reject the panel’s recommendation for paid sick days and, third and most important, they fear that the new House of Representatives under Republican leadership might reject or sabotage the panel’s recommendations (if their corporate friends object to it) and might also act in various ways to undermine the rail unions and Biden.
A second option might be for Biden to issue an executive order requiring the rail companies—because they are federal contractors—to guarantee their workers seven paid sick days. That’s the number of paid sick days that President Obama, in a 2015 executive order, required most federal contractors to provide. But Obama’s executive order excluded rail companies. It’s unclear whether the courts would uphold an executive order requiring the railroads to provide paid sick days. And business-friendly Republican senators might move to filibuster against any prevent-a-strike deal that forces the rail companies to provide paid sick days.
A third option, and the one House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently embraced, is, first, to have Congress vote to impose the tentative contracts and block a strike—which the House just did, by a vote of 290–137—and then vote on a separate bill that would require the freight railroads to provide paid sick days. This latter part would certainly please Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who also objected to any deal that didn’t provide for paid sick days. With her extraordinary legislative expertise, Pelosi was able to get the House to approve such a paid sick days measure, with a vote of 220–207, but such legislation will no doubt face tougher going in the Senate. A good number of Senate Republicans are expected to support imposing the tentative contracts and blocking any strike, but they may back a filibuster against any Congressional mandate that requires the rail companies to provide paid sick days. (Republicans don’t usually like doing favors for labor unions or doing anything that corporate America opposes.)
Under this last option, Biden and Congressional Democrats will no doubt say that they’re fighting the good fight for the rail unions to get paid sick days, while also seeking to protect the U.S. economy from a potentially devastating strike. And if Senate Republicans block the paid sick days legislation, the Democrats will be able to say that they are fighting to help workers, but once again Republicans are acting against the interests of working families because they won’t even back paid sick days for workers.
Some top union officials have been careful not to attack Biden. Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL–CIO, representing the rail unions, told me in an interview that it’s important to remember that the tentative contracts include a 24 percent raise—the highest raise in nearly four decades. Plus, he noted, the tentative agreements contained recommendations of the president’s emergency panel that rejected the railroads’ demand that workers pay far more toward their health coverage.
On Wednesday morning, the Transportation Trades Department issued a statement that vigorously attacked the rail companies as “modern-day robber barons” (and didn’t mention Biden at all). That statement from Regan and the transportation department’s secretary-treasurer slammed “the rail industry’s unchecked corporate greed and bad faith bargaining efforts.” They said that for three years the rail unions have bargained with the freight railroads “to improve hellish working conditions that pushed workers to the brink of exhaustion, illness, and burn out.”
Regan said the rail companies hate all the bad publicity that they’ve been getting about not providing paid sick days. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if in coming months, individual rail companies, embarrassed for looking like Scrooges about paid sick days, ask to reopen contract talks with unions in order to provide paid sick days. Regan said that no matter what happens with Biden and Congress over the next few days, the rail unions and their allies need to keep up the pressure on the rail companies to grant paid sick days.
“This fight is by no means over,” Regan said.