Reported by James Politi and Taylor Nicole Rogers for the Financial Times.
Joe Biden has often portrayed himself as the most pro-union president in American history, with his sympathy for blue-collar workers dating back to his childhood in the Pennsylvania rustbelt.
But faced with a potential strike of railroad unions that could have a crippling effect on US supply chains and the economy heading into the holiday season, Biden is now pleading for Congress to step in and force thousands of workers to stay on the job, risking a rift with some of his closest political allies.
The White House thought it had done enough to prevent a damaging rail strike in September, before the midterm elections, after senior administration officials brokered a tentative agreement between the companies and union leaders that included a 24 per cent raise over the course of the five-year contract.
Yet this month workers represented by four out of 12 unions involved in the railway sector rejected the pact, largely because it failed to include a provision guaranteeing paid sick leave. That revived the possibility of a strike for about 115,000 workers as early as December 9, and triggered a scramble to find a fix.
Biden is “a president for all Americans. He believes if there is a real shutdown, it would be unacceptable and it would affect jobs, it would affect communities across the country, it’ll affect farms. And he believes that we need to do everything that we can to prevent that,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, told reporters as the president travelled to Michigan on Tuesday.
Congressional leaders from both parties have indicated they will quickly pass the legislation backed by Biden to enforce the deal, which would make it illegal for workers and unions to proceed with the strike. But even if Congress heeds his call it would still be a dramatic step — the first time a US president has moved to enforce a rail contract against the will of some union members since George HW Bush.
“There’s going to be a whole lot of frustrated and upset railway workers,” said Arthur Wheaton, professor of labour studies at Cornell University. For Biden, he says the choice was whether to “throw the US economy into an absolute turmoil” or say “I can’t help you on your paid time off at the moment”.
As leaders in the House and Senate on Tuesday prepared legislation to impose the tentative agreement, many rail workers appeared to turn on the White House. Some wrote on Twitter that Biden had “betrayed” their support, saying that the president’s decision amounted to him choosing business interests over workers. Others called him “Judas Biden”.
“The ‘most labour-friendly president in history’ has proven that he and the Democratic party are not the friends of labour they have touted themselves to be,” said Gabe Christenson, a conductor and co-chair of the workers advocacy group Railroad Workers United.
“Joe Biden blew it,” said the RWU’s Hugh Sawyer. “He had the opportunity to prove his labour-friendly pedigree to millions of workers by simply asking Congress for legislation to end the threat of a national strike on terms more favourable to workers. Sadly, he could not bring himself to advocate for a lousy handful of sick days.”
Still, some union officials defended the White House, saying they understood the threat to the economy and that the deal Biden and Marty Walsh, labour secretary, negotiated in September contained several gains for workers, including the pay rise.
“There’s certainly some frustration among rank and file with the White House,” said Greg Regan, the president of the AFL-CIO department that represents the workers’ unions. “The president, I think, has been consistently supportive of the workers and trying to find a fair resolution for all of us.”
There is still some uncertainty about the timing of the congressional fix. Bernie Sanders, the leftwing Vermont senator, and Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida, have said they opposed the legislative intervention and could delay passage.
But with pivotal congressional leaders in favour of Biden’s plan in both chambers of Congress, officials within the administration and policy analysts expect it to be approved in time to stop a strike. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, is likely to press ahead with a vote as early as Wednesday, before sending it over to the Senate.
“We expect any progressive Democratic defections will be made up with ample House Republican votes . . . the Senate is likely to pass a measure sometime next week,” Chris Krueger, an analyst at Cowen Washington Research Group, wrote in a note to clients on Tuesday.
Lawmakers are also likely to separately consider measures to boost paid sick leave, though efforts by Biden and the Democrats to include those in previous economic legislation have floundered amid Republican opposition.
As for Biden’s relationship with the unions, Krueger said that it was a far cry from Ronald Reagan’s showdown with the air traffic controllers in the 1980s, which ended with the firing of more than 11,000 employees who refused to return to work as ordered.
“Biden and the leadership of the unions that agreed to a package — most would say this is a pretty generous package . . . it’s not like he’s giving them a lump of coal for Christmas,” he said.
Wheaton at Cornell University said there might be some “forgiveness” for Biden from the unions given how close the relationship has been and the fact that the agreement does include some benefits. “The railway workers won’t walk away with nothing,” he said.
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