President Joe Biden wants Congress to block a railroad strike after members of four key unions rejected a contract proposal that failed to address their demands for paid sick leave, regularly scheduled weekends, and other quality-of-life concerns for workers in a highly stressful industry. And top Democrats in the House and Senate are jumping on board for federal intervention, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) telling reporters, “I don’t like going against the ability of unions to strike, but weighing the equities, we must avoid a strike.”
On Wednesday, the House voted 290-137 to impose a tentative agreement that key unions had rejected. Seventy-nine Republicans joined most Democrats in voting for the measure. In a separate 221-207 vote, the House added a provision—promoted by progressives such as Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.)—to amend the rail agreement and increase the number of paid sick days from one to seven. Unfortunately, this provision could be dropped by the Senate in a move that would simply approve the agreement that a majority of rail workers have rejected.
So, a Congress controlled by Democrats could still, at the behest of a Democratic president who positioned himself as the country’s most pro-labor leader since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, force workers to accept a contract that fails to meet their reasonable and necessary demands.
That’s wrong. Unless the sick-leave provision is included, Congress should not intervene.
Biden, Pelosi, and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) say that intervention is necessary to avert the economic instability that could result from an extended strike. But their argument neglects the basic premise of labor negotiations in a way that takes away the most vital bargaining chip that the rail unions have—the strike threat—at precisely the point when it is most likely to be effective. As a statement from one of the key unions explained, kind words from the Democrats don’t mean a lot when workers are disempowered.
“It is not enough to ‘share workers’ concerns,’” the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees announced in response to the moves by Democrats to impose an inferior contract. Adopting the tentative agreement that excludes paid sick leave would, the union says, “ignore 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.”
If the measure succeeds without the provision, congressional leaders and Biden will be imposing a contract that was rejected by a majority of the 115,000 workers whose unions— the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers—Transportation Division (SMART-TD); the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen; and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers—have been negotiating with the rail companies. While a number of rail unions have accepted the contract deal in ratification votes, there is widespread frustration within the industry at what Brotherhood of Railroad Signalman President Michael Baldwin describes as the “lack of good-faith bargaining” by rail companies that have “failed to recognize the safety-sensitive and highly stressful job BRS members perform each day to keep the railroad running and supply chain flowing.”
Former US labor secretary Robert Reich has been even blunter when discussing the refusal of railroad companies to bend to union demands for basic workplace protections. “Is there a better definition of corporate greed than a Warren Buffett-owned railway refusing to provide workers with sick leave despite the company reporting a net income of nearly $6 billion?” Reich asked on Monday. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway company owns the BNSF Railway Company, one of the nation’s largest carriers.
The unions that have rejected the tentative agreement want to keep negotiating, and they make a compelling case against federal actions that would undermine their ability to get a better deal before strike deadlines on December 9. “[The] railroad executives who constantly complain about government interference and regularly bad-mouth regulators and Congress now want Congress to do the bargaining for them,” says SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson.
One senator who echoed that point of view was an unlikely ally, Florida Republican Marco Rubio. “Instead of relying on Congress to carry their water, the parties should go back to the negotiating table and strike a fair deal that workers can accept,” Rubio announced on Tuesday.
“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,” said the senator, who has pledged to oppose “any deal that does not have the support of the rail workers.”
Workers have a right to be skeptical regarding Rubio. The senator’s lifetime AFL-CIO rating is an embarrassing 11 percent, and he frequently takes unfair shots at union leaders, including those in the rail sector. Yet, early last year, Rubio expressed sympathy for union organizing efforts by Amazon workers, and later in the year he joined Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, one of the Senate’s most ardent union backers, to call on the US Department of Labor to launch a full investigation into Amazon’s unfair labor practices.
Now, Rubio is complaining about how “Wall Street’s drive for efficiency has turned rail workers into little more than line items on a spreadsheet.”
Rubio is wrong about a lot of things. But he is right about this.
Democrats can’t simply impose an agreement on rail workers. At the very least, they have to make it better by approving the sick-leave provision. That’s what a number of senators propose to do, including Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Alex Padilla of California, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Tina Smith of Minnesota, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. In a joint statement released Wednesday afternoon, they said, “Congress can and must make this agreement better.”
“During the first three quarters of this year, the rail industry made a record-breaking $21.2 billion in profits,” the senators note. “Guaranteeing seven paid sick days to rail workers would only cost the industry $321 million a year—less than two percent of their total profits. Please do not tell us that the rail industry cannot afford to guarantee paid sick days to their workers.”
That’s right. This is the bare minimum that Congress must do to justify any sort of intervention. If the votes are not there to add sick leave for rail workers to the agreement, then the Democratic position should be that the companies and the unions must return to the bargaining table. That’s what Marco Rubio is saying. Whether the senator from Florida is being sincere or cynical, the Democratic position on labor issues should be more strongly pro-worker. And it absolutely cannot be worse than Rubio’s stance.