Reported by Nick Mordowanec for Newsweek.
President Joe Biden’s call for congressional intervention to avoid an economically debilitating railroad strike is being met with blowback from unions and politicians.
“This is a legacy defining moment for Joe Biden,” the Railroad Workers United (RWU), which represents union members across North America, tweeted on Tuesday. “He is going down as one of the biggest disappointments in labor history.”
Biden has called for Congress to “immediately” adopt a tentative agreement between railroad workers and operators to avoid a “potentially crippling national rail shutdown.”
“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 said Monday in a statement. “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.”
The president’s urging comes a little more than two months after a rail strike was deterred after a temporary agreement was reached between railroad unions and freight rail companies.
In a statement released Tuesday, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED) said it “is deeply disappointed by and disagrees” with Biden calling on Congress to remedy the situation. Paid sick days are at the forefront of employees’ demands.
“Passing legislation to adopt tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave for railroad workers will not address rail service issues,” the statement 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.”
The BMWED also called out big U.S. corporations and “the monopolies that control America” that “have again profiteered from the problem they created and shifted the consequences of it onto the railroad workers, the customers, and the general public.”
BMWED communications director Clark Ballew told Newsweek that while 99 percent of Americans were at home during the COVID pandemic, railroad workers were doing their jobs.
“We were proud to go to work, but we got sick,” Ballew said. “We weren’t able to obtain paid sick days through the Presidential Emergency Board but hopefully we can today.”
On July 18, Biden signed an executive order establishing the Presidential Emergency Board “to help resolve an ongoing dispute between major freight rail carriers and their unions.”
Ballew added that BMWED was “disappointed” regarding Biden’s pro-union remarks in relation to paid sick days but added that “the PEB [Presidential Emergency Board] was generally favorable to us and I’d say it wouldn’t be as favorable under a Republican.”
Tony Cardwell, president of the BMWED, told NPR on Tuesday that during the previous negotiation, the union offered four days of paid sick time a year—adding that it was “the lowest we were willing to go.”
Workers, some of whom got sick or died during the pandemic, currently get zero paid sick days.
“It’s not so much that it’s frustrating that the Congress is intervening,” Cardwell said. “Why can’t they intervene, and why can’t the legislation include the sick leave? And that’s what people should be asking themselves. It’s very simple.”
On Wednesday, Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) of the AFL-CIO, and Shari Semelsberger, the secretary-treasurer, called on House representatives and senators to vote in favor of seven guaranteed days of paid sick leave.
“A worker should not be fired for going to the doctor,” they said in a statement. “Yet it is 2022 and railroaders are fighting for sick leave in the richest country on Earth. … We are faced with an undeniable truth that freight railroads have shaped themselves into modern day robber barons. By recklessly prioritizing profits over people, they have failed workers, customers and consumers.”
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