President Joe Biden, the most pro-labor president in recent memory, personally participated in negotiations that resulted in a tentative labor agreement that prevented a strike at the country’s major freight railroads in September. He praised the agreement as a “win for thousands of rail workers.”
However, many of those employees didn’t think so.
In turn, this has led to rank-and-file members of four of the twelve unions voting against ratification, which has set the stage for a potentially disastrous industry-wide strike that could begin on December 9 at 12:01 am ET.
Although the contracts that were rejected would have given workers their largest pay raises in 50 years—immediate 14% raises with back pay and 24% raises over the course of five years, plus $1,000 cash bonuses every year—wage and economic issues were never the main issues in these negotiations.
The lack of sick pay that is typical for workers in other industries, scheduling rules that required many of the employees to be on call seven days a week even when they weren’t working, and staffing shortages all contributed to this.
Although there were some improvements made in those areas by the tentative agreements, they fell short of the union’s demands. Anger among the rank-and-file about staffing levels and scheduling rules that could penalize them and cost them pay for taking a sick day had been building for year. Working through the pandemic only brought the issues more front and center. And that, plus the record profits being reported by many of the railroads last year and likely again this year, prompted many workers to vote no.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), the second-largest rail union, received only 54% of its members to vote in favor of the agreement. Union members from all over the industry opposed the proposed deal because they were aware that Congress might vote to force them to continue working or to do so under conditions of a new contract that might be even worse than the ones they had previously rejected.
A protracted rail strike would have a significant negative impact on the US economy, which many believe is on the verge of entering a recession. There could be shortages of anything, raising the cost of gasoline, food, and automobiles, among other things. Due to a shortage of necessary parts, factories may have to temporarily shut down.
Because of this, many believe that Congress will intervene and force contracts on the four unions’ members.
Would a divided Lame Duck Congress be able to come to a swift, bipartisan decision to act to stop or prevent a strike? “Politics has nothing to do with this. This is a financial problem, he declared.
Despite the fact that the railroads are reporting record profits (or profits that are very close to record profits), the unions contend that the railroads are unwilling to bargain on issues like sick time because they are counting on Congress to give them the deal they want.
He added that some union supporters who won’t be running for office again in Congress the following year might even skip the Lame Duck session. And other items on the busy agenda of Congress could derail the railroads’ and business groups’ hopes for swift action.
Pierce and other union leaders are nevertheless concerned that even some pro-union members of Congress may vote to prevent or put an end to a strike rather than take responsibility for the resulting commotion.
Again, a strike would put Biden in a precarious position because the pro-union president would have to decide between upsetting union allies who want the right to strike or running the risk of the economic chaos that a strike would bring about.
While Biden lacks the power to unilaterally order the railroad workers to remain on the job, as he did in July, he would still need to give his approval for any Congressional action for it to be implemented.
Earlier statements from the White House that “a shutdown is unacceptable because of the harm it would inflict on jobs, families,” were repeated by White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Tuesday. But when asked if Biden would consent to Congressional action mandating a contract that employees find intolerable, she remained silent.