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Congress moved swiftly this week to pass legislation that will prevent a nationwide strike by railway workers, just a few days after President Biden warned that a work stoppage would “devastate our economy.”
The threat of a rail strike, which experts say would have had major negative effects across the entire economy, had loomed for months, as workers and rail companies failed to reach a deal that would satisfy unions’ demands for better pay and more flexible schedules.
The risk appeared to have been averted in September, when the Biden administration helped broker an agreement that includes a 24% pay bump. But workers in four of the nation’s 12 railroad unions rejected that compromise when it came up for a vote, largely because it didn’t include any paid sick leave. The failure of those votes prompted Biden to call for Congress to step in.
In most industries, Congress doesn't have the authority to force an end to labor disputes. But a 1926 law called the Railway Labor Act gives lawmakers unique power to impose a resolution in disagreements involving railway workers. A bill that will force rail workers to accept the terms of the initial deal was passed in the House or Representatives on Wednesday and in the Senate on the following day. A separate bill that would have added seven days of sick leave to the original agreement was approved in the House, but died in the Senate, after failing to clear the 60-vote threshold required to pass most legislation in the chamber.
Why there’s debate
The dispute had put Biden, who has pledged to be the “the most pro-union president” in U.S. history, in a bind: having to choose between standing by workers and potentially risking a substantial blow to the economy.
Many Democratic lawmakers echoed Biden’s sentiment that, as reluctant as they were to force a deal against workers’ wishes, the harm that a strike would cause meant that they had no choice but to intervene. Conservative commentators generally applaud any step that weakens unions’ power, but some have accused Biden of hypocrisy for taking action in this case, after backing organized labor in other situations when it benefits him politically.
The president has come under fire from rail unions, who accused him of siding with “robber baron railroads” to impose a deal that will “further sicken, infuriate, and disenfranchise” railway workers. A number of progressive Democrats, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., had called on Congress to pass legislation that satisfied workers’ demands for sick leave. In the end, though, all of them decided not to hold up progress on the core agreement over sick leave.
Some critics on the left say Biden and Democrats betrayed their promises to the labor movement by undermining rail workers’ ability to leverage their value for better working conditions. Others say Biden should have stepped in to force a deal on the unions’ terms, rather than siding with highly profitable railway companies that are refusing to provide their employees basic improvements in their quality of life.
By intervening to stop a strike, Biden chose the best of a series of bad options
“Biden would have certainly relished a deal that satisfied the unions' lingering demands. But with economic concerns still weighing on Americans, the president wasn't willing to let a strike happen.” — Joey Garrison, USA Today
Biden was right to step in, but he backed the wrong side
“Mr. Biden has good reason to worry that a strike would cause significant economic disruptions and could add to inflationary pressures. But the president has picked the wrong side of the fight. He should be pressing the companies to make concessions.” — Binyamin Appelbaum, New York Times
There’s nothing nefarious about enforcing a deal that benefits both sides of the dispute
“Adopting the Walsh–Biden agreement, which is what Biden called on Congress to do, in no way precludes unions from continuing to negotiate for more sick leave at the local level. The Walsh–Biden agreement is a fair deal, arrived at through the proper procedures, and one that railroads and a majority of unions have accepted.” — Editorial, National Review
Democrats let railroad companies off the hook for their exploitation of workers
“We can use a number of frames to understand this story. ‘Clock is ticking toward crisis!’ is one. ‘Two sides can’t agree’ is another. ‘Fed up workers demand basic human dignity from rapacious oligarchs’ would be another. Would that last one be so inaccurate?” — Paul Waldman, Washington Post
Biden was finally forced to put the needs of everyday Americans over his union allies
“A congressional resolution preventing a strike would force Biden, who has already decided that he is doing everything right as president, to show who he really works for. Does he work for you and your family? Or does he work for a pampered modern labor movement that has no qualms about holding the country hostage for extra leverage in its contract negotiations?” — Editorial, Washington Examiner
Democrats should have only passed a plan that met workers’ demands
“Congress must do more to ensure railway workers’ demands are met before telling them to go back on the job. After all, these demands are not unreasonable.” — Editorial, Philadelphia Inquirer
Biden has weakened the entire labor movement
“Rail companies have cut jobs in order to spend less on wages and boost profits while forcing workers on understaffed trains to accept punitive conditions, longer hours, and little time off. By opting to strong-arm the railway unions, Biden is doing his utmost to ensure that this exploitative dynamic continues. He’s also indicating to corporate interests in other industries that his own espoused pro-labor beliefs do not extend to supporting workers once they actually threaten to create inconvenience or disruption — which is, of course, their only real source of leverage.” — Luke Savage, Jacobin
Democrats will only stand up to out-of-control unions when they stand to suffer politically
“A disruptive rail strike would be as bad for the economy as school closures were for kids. But this time, Biden worries his party will pay a political price. Think of that hypocrisy the next time the president tries to meddle in private industries like Amazon and Starbucks. Or when it’s your kids being taught by a bad teacher protected by a union. Biden and the Democrats don’t care who suffers — as long as it’s not them.” — James Bovard, New York Post
Congress needs to update outdated labor laws to avoid these situations in the future
“We need to have a bigger discussion about these types of employments and how we settle these sort of disputes. … Nobody ever seems to have the appetite to kind of update some of these clunky old mechanisms that we have for things. And it's probably long overdue.” — Kimberley Strassel, Wall Street Journal
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