Congress and the Biden administration this week used the provisions of a 96-year-old labor law to force unions representing thousands of railway workers to accept a contract that many of them view as inadequate.
Invoking the Railway Labor Act, the House and Senate passed legislation giving legal force to an agreement, brokered by the White House over the summer, that significantly increases workers’ pay but fails to offer key benefits such as paid sick days. The measure will prevent a strike that could have dealt a devastating blow to the U.S. economy.
In the House, a measure to provide railroad workers with paid sick leave passed in tandem with the measure enforcing the agreement. The sick leave proposal failed in the Senate, however.
Signing the bill into law was politically fraught for President Joe Biden, who frequently refers to his staunch support of unions in the United States.
In a brief signing ceremony at the White House on Friday morning, Biden said, “The bill I’m about to sign ends a difficult rail dispute and helps our nation avoid what, without a doubt, would have been an economic catastrophe at a very bad time in the calendar.”
Calling freight rail the “backbone” of the U.S. economy, he nonetheless added, “I know this was a tough vote for members of both parties. It was tough for me.”
The events Friday morning marked the culmination of a yearslong process in which multiple unions representing some 115,000 railroad workers negotiated with the management of freight giants CSX, Union Pacific and others over pay and benefits.
The unions all pointed out that rail freight carriers have for years been posting record profits while simultaneously cutting their workforces. A major complaint was that this created unpredictable schedules for workers, who found themselves effectively “on call” even during their time off because there was so little slack in the workforce.
Railroad employees have been working without a contract since 2019, when the negotiations began. The Railway Labor Act provides for a National Mediation Board to assist in the talks. But after years of no progress, the parties were sent before a Presidential Emergency Board, also created under the same law, empowered to propose a solution.
While it initially looked as though the unions would accept the deal, when it was put to a vote, several members declined to ratify it. A legally mandated “cooling-off period” was set to expire on Dec. 9, which could have triggered a strike.
Michael LeRoy, a labor law expert at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, told VOA that the Railway Labor Act, which governs railroad workers, is significantly different from labor laws that cover most other U.S. industries.
He said the law, passed in 1926, “responded to a 40-year history of very disruptive rail strikes, where workers had grievances, similar to this dispute, about overwork and under pay. And when they would go on strike, they would strike strategically — in the Chicago Switching Yard, for example — and they would shut down the whole national rail network.”
Unlike the National Labor Relations Act, he said, which leaves both labor and management with “economic weapons” they can threaten to use (strikes for unions, and lockouts for management), the Railway Labor Act has a provision allowing the government to block a strike from taking place.
The unique ability of the Railway Labor Act to compel workers to accept a contract makes many people uncomfortable, LeRoy said. He pointed out that in the Senate, votes against forcing the unions to accede to the contract came from both Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren, one of the body’s most liberal members, and Missouri Republican Josh Hawley, one of its most conservative.
Among many lawmakers, “there is this unease with the government jumping in like this,” LeRoy said. However, he added, “At the end of the day, what’s happening is pragmatism wins out over principles.”
Todd Vachon, director of the Labor Education Action Research Network at Rutgers University, said that having the government force an agreement puts railway union leaders at a significant disadvantage.
“It really undermines their bargaining power,” he told VOA. “Really, the right to strike is what underpins the bargaining power of all unions.”
Union leaders probably hoped that they would have a stronger ally in Biden, he said. However, Biden on Wednesday requested speedy action from Congress to craft the legislation he signed on Friday, without demanding that lawmakers also address the concessions workers sought on paid leave and sick time.
“Biden has been typically very pro-union since he was elected, in many ways,” Vachon said. “So the president coming out and saying, ‘OK, we need to force a contract on the union that does not include that one thing,’ I think, was shocking to some folks in labor.”
Business groups supportive
While the major rail carriers involved in the negotiations did not issue statements about the resolution of the contract, organizations representing the larger business community were in favor of the government’s action.
“We commend members of Congress for averting a catastrophic rail strike,” Suzanne Clark, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. “American workers, businesses and consumers will benefit from this outcome as it provides generous benefits for rail workers and certainty that rail service will not be interrupted. We must remember that our economy depends on the hard work of rail workers and the railroads, and averting a strike is a win for our country.”
“Thanks to swift action from President Biden and his administration, and bipartisan cooperation in Congress, a holiday supply chain disaster has been averted,” National Association of Manufacturers President and CEO Jay Timmons said in a statement.
He added, “[A] freight rail shutdown would have been devastating to the manufacturing industry, the U.S. economy and all American families.”
Tony Cardwell, the president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division, part of the Teamsters union, issued a statement after the vote saying the failure to approve paid sick leave for railroad workers left him “baffled, exasperated, and deeply saddened.”
Adding that lawmakers had a “moral responsibility” to secure paid sick leave for railroad workers, he said, “It is shocking and appalling that any member of Congress would cast a vote against any sort of provision that raises the standard of living for hard-working Americans. In fact, such a vote is nothing less than anti-American, an abdication of their oath of office and you are deemed, in my eyes, unworthy of holding office.”
The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen also issued a statement.
“Almost every elected member of Congress campaigns on being ‘for the working class;’ the actions of many today demonstrated they are for the corporate class,” it said. “The dereliction of duty and inability to hold corporations accountable for a lack of good faith to their employees will not be forgotten.”
The unions’ complaints were echoed by left-of-center advocacy groups in Washington.
In an email to VOA, Samantha Sanders, director of government affairs and advocacy at the Economic Policy Institute, said, “All workers should have paid sick days — and the right to strike. It is unacceptable that rail companies refused to provide rail workers with paid sick leave, despite reporting record profits in 2021. And it is deeply disappointing that the Senate failed to pass rail workers’ basic demands for paid sick leave.”