As a massive rail strike draws closer, rail unions lambasted a statement President Joe Biden put out Monday asking Congress to impose the agreement, even as the majority of the workforce has rejected it.
“I am calling on Congress to pass legislation immediately to adopt the Tentative Agreement between railroad workers and operators—without any modifications or delay—to avert a potentially crippling national rail shutdown,” Biden’s statement read.
Biden notes the deal was approved by “the majority of the unions in the industry,” which is true but not the whole story. Eight out of the 12 unions voted to accept the deal, but those four unions that rejected it represent the majority, or 55%, of the total Class 1 railroad workforce.
“As a proud pro-labor President, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement,” Biden’s statement continued. “But in this case—where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families—I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.”
For the last three years, and through an arduous federally mandated bargaining process, a dozen rail unions with the largest rail companies in North America have tried to come to an agreement with their employers.
Wages and health care costs are two of those issues. But particularly for the unions that cover train operators specifically, the biggest issues are the punishing new attendance policy called “Hi-Viz,” as well as railroads’ slow decreasing of engineers from two to one under “Precision Scheduled Railroading.” Read more about that here.
But the deal that union bosses and the railroads struck in September that the 115,000 workers voted on did not include any changes to those two policies. Workers say that has driven a 20% reduction in workforce since 2019 and contributes to loss of quality of life, safety, and supply chain issues.
Pressure campaign from industry groups
Biden’s statement came just hours after several pro-industry groups backed by the US Chamber of Commerce penned an open letter to congressional leaders asking for the same.
The letter’s signatories in Iowa included the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, the Iowa Motor Truck Association, the Greater Des Moines Partnership, and the chambers of commerce of Council Bluffs, Dubuque, and Mason City.
“Absent a voluntary agreement, we call on you to take immediate steps to prevent a national rail strike and the certain economic destruction that would follow,” the industry group’s statement read.
Unions surprised by Biden’s statement
Rail unions seemed taken aback at what they saw as Biden’s cave to the industry groups.
“Unfortunately, the ‘most labor-friendly president’ has opted to side with Big Business and call for a thwarting of railroad workers’ right to strike,” the Railroad Workers United (RWU), an interunion group, said in a statement Tuesday. “Railroad workers have been vociferous in their opposition to a contract that fails to address critical quality of work-life issues.”
RWU co-chair Ross Grooters, a railroad worker from Pleasant Hill, said Biden’s statement was “disappointing” and “turning their backs on the needs of workers.”
“Politicians shouldn’t be taking the sides of highly profitable companies which are failing to meet needs in our supply chain,” they said. “If rail labor is so critical to the economy, paid sick time is the least the President and Congress should do.”
The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED), whose members rejected the agreement in October, urged Congress not to impose the agreement.
“Passing legislation to adopt tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave for railroad workers will not address rail service issues,” the union said. “Rather, it will worsen supply chain issues and further sicken, infuriate, and disenfranchise railroad workers as they continue shouldering the burdens of the railroads’ mismanagement.”
Congress poised to take it up
Congressional leaders of both parties appeared poised to take up Biden’s suggestion, however.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement House Democrats could vote as early as this week to impose the tentative agreement.
“We are reluctant to bypass the standard ratification process for the Tentative Agreement—but we must act to prevent a catastrophic nationwide rail strike, which would grind our economy to a halt,” Pelosi wrote. “It is my hope that this necessary, strike-averting legislation will earn a strongly bipartisan vote, giving America’s families confidence in our commitment to protecting their financial futures.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters after a Monday meeting, “We’re gonna need to pass a bill.”
Not all agreed.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, did not say this week whether he would object to moving the legislation quickly through the Senate. Even one senator could delay a quick vote, setting up the strike to begin Dec. 9.
Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Susan Collins of Maine, both Republicans, also pushed back.
“The railways & workers should go back & negotiate a deal that the workers, not just the union bosses, will accept,” Rubio tweeted. “But if Congress is forced to do it, I will not vote to impose a deal that doesn’t have the support of the rail workers.”
Iowa Republicans haven’t taken strong positions either way.
Rep. Ashley Hinson said earlier this month she would be in support of pushing the strike back, while Sen. Chuck Grassley said a rail strike would be “devastating” and “something … must be done” in Congress to prevent it.
Sen. Joni Ernst told CNN she was “still evaluating the plan.”
by Amie Rivers
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