Possible rail strike tests Biden's pro-worker sentiments

() — President Joe Biden has touted himself as a “proud pro-labor” leader, but in the face of a potentially costly railway strike, the president is pushing for a bill that would tie workers to a contract many of them already voted down.

The U.S. House on Wednesday voted to impose a contract to avert the strike, but critics say the agreement undercuts paid sick leave.

Biden on Monday asked Congress to intervene to avoid a potential stoppage that could cause disruptions to the transportation of fuel, food and other critical goods.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed reservations about overriding the negotiations but ultimately passed the measure by a vote of 290-137.

A major point of contention among workers and the railroad companies is paid sick time. The agreement only provided one day of paid sick leave, however, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi added a second measure that would boost the number to seven days of sick leave. Both plans would need the Senate’s approval.

The intervention was particularly difficult for Democratic lawmakers who have traditionally sought to align themselves with the politically powerful labor unions that criticized Biden’s move to intervene in the contract dispute and block a strike.

However, business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau Federation warned that stopping rail service could cost the nation’s economy an estimated $2 billion per day.

That prospect has put Biden in a position he hadn’t been in previously, radio host and former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh told Wednesday.

“You’re taking away the union’s right to strike,” Walsh said Wednesday before Congress’ vote came down. “As a United States senator (it’s) an easy position for Joe Biden to take. As president overseeing an economy that might take a $2 billion hit every day? You can’t allow that. So yes — hypocrisy? Sure. A compromise? Sure. Political? Sure. President Biden has a different job now.”

During a September 2021 speech, Biden vowed to be “the most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history.”

On Monday, however, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Maintenance of Way Employees Division said they were “deeply disappointed” by Biden’s support of imposing the rail contract.

“It is not enough to ‘share workers’ concerns,’” the group wrote in an official statement. “A call to Congress to act immediately to pass legislation that adopts tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave ignores 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.”

From the outset of Biden’s presidency, workers across industries such as food service, health care and entertainment were struggling with the economic impacts of COVID-19 and the stop-and-go nature of shutdowns that resulted.

Biden’s administration provided some relief through the American Rescue Plan and a Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment, among other successes. He fell short, however, of other efforts, as noted in an NBC News report that broke down Biden’s victories and shortfalls on behalf of workers’ rights during his first year of presidency.

Among the misses were the Protecting the Right to Organize Act and the Build Back Better Plan, both of which passed in the House but not the Senate.

As for Wednesday’s vote, Walsh said Biden could be trying to avoid allowing a Republican-led House to impose their version of an agreement come January.

“These rail companies and the unions have always had an agreement where they increase compensation and other benefits in lieu of unpaid sick time, so I don’t think there’ll be an initial kerfuffle here from many in the union,” Walsh said. “But again, the alternative could have been much worse in January under a Republican Congress.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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