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Workers Livid as Biden Urges Congress to Pass Rail Contract Without Sick Leave

“This was the ‘which side are you on?’ moment, and the White House chose the railroad bosses,” one labor reporter wrote.

President Joe Biden speaks at the White House on November 21, 2022.

The House will intervene in a dispute between unionized rail workers and rail companies by moving to impose a labor contract on workers that excludes their top attendance demands, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) announced after President Joe Biden issued a call for Congress to act on Monday night.

In his statement, Biden said that the adoption of the contract, negotiated earlier this year and rejected by unions representing over half of the more than 115,000 rail workers affected by negotiations, is necessary to avert a “potentially crippling national rail shutdown.”

“[A]t this critical moment for our economy, in the holiday season, we cannot let our strongly held conviction for better outcomes for workers deny workers the benefits of the bargain they reached, and hurl this nation into a devastating rail freight shutdown,” Biden said.

Unions have expressed ire over Biden’s statement. “We’re trying to address the issue here of sick time. It’s very important,” Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen president Michael Baldwin told CNN. “This action prevents us from reaching the end of our process, takes away the strength and ability that we have to force bargaining or force the railroads to … do the right thing.”

“A call to Congress to act immediately to pass legislation that adopts tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave ignores the Railroad Workers’ concerns,” wrote union Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes (BMWED) in a statement. “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.”

The deadline for an agreement is December 8, at which point union members will strike if an agreement isn’t reached. Though several unions have ratified a contract, members across unions have agreed to strike in solidarity with the four unions that have rejected the agreement.

This could have an enormous impact on the U.S. economy, affecting water supplies and potentially costing $2 billion a day in lost economic output, according to railroad trade group the Association of American Railroads. Workers and union supporters say that the blame for the strike would lie nearly entirely on rail owners’ greed and their abject refusal to provide workers with basic provisions enjoyed by many other workers, like paid sick leave and not being penalized for taking time off.

The rail workers say they face grueling working conditions and are expected to work for weeks without a day off, not even for situations like a doctor’s visit, recovering from a heart attack, or the death of a parent. Indeed, one impetus for the current dispute was a locomotive engineer’s death from a heart attack earlier this year after he was forced to delay a doctor’s appointment due to work demands.

Pelosi said shortly after Biden’s statement was released that the House will take up a vote to adopt the agreement “with no poison pills or changes to the negotiated terms,” meaning that workers would not get the sick leave demands they have asked for. As it is, the deal contains raises and would allow employees to take a day off for routine health appointments, if requested 30 days in advance. This agreement, workers say, is not nearly sufficient to address the punishing attendance policies that they face.

It is unclear if the Senate will be able to pass the agreement; in its current form, it will likely see opposition from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who has called for Congress to ensure that workers’ demands are met.

“If the rail industry can afford to spend $25.5 billion this year to buy back its own stock and hand out huge dividends to its wealthy shareholders, please do not tell me it cannot afford to guarantee paid sick days to its workers and provide them with a decent quality of life,” he wrote in a tweet on Saturday, adding later that “Congress must stand with rail workers.”

Workers and labor advocates are furious over Biden’s statement, which comes at odds with his pledge to be a pro-labor, pro-union president.

“This is a legacy defining moment for Joe Biden,” wrote inter-union caucus of railroad workers Railroad Workers United. “He is going down as one of the biggest disappointments in labor history.”

“Full sellout from the White House for the majority of rail workers who rejected the deal the President brokered, preemptively denying them the right to strike,” wrote Labor Notes journalist Jonah Furman. “This was the ‘which side are you on?’ moment, and the White House chose the railroad bosses.”

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