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What next for workers as Biden forces through rail agreement without sick- leave?

The national freight strike, set to begin today (December 9), has officially been averted. This is good news for the American economy but has left freight rail workers feeling betrayed. With rank-and-file members having lost their legal recourse to renegotiate for the foreseeable future, USTN explores what this means for workers.

On Friday, December 2, President Joe Biden signed legislation to prevent a strike that could have had crippling effects on the nation’s economy and would have put millions of Americans out of work heading into the Christmas period.

President Joe Biden at a White House Ceremony on 2 December [Reuters/Kevin Lamarque]

Lawmakers in Congress, at Biden’s behest, voted earlier in the week to adopt September’s agreement, brokered by the White House and accepted by rail operators, in spite of opposition from the rank-and-file members of the unions. This is the first time in 30 years lawmakers have forcefully intervened to prevent a strike, but President Biden insisted such drastic action was necessary in order to avoid a crippling national recession.

“We’ve spared the country that catastrophe… I know this was a tough vote for members of both parties. It was tough for me. But it was the right thing to do at this moment.”

A national strike was set to begin today (December 9) as members and railroads could not see eye-to-eye on the provision of sick leave. President Biden insisted a solution must be reached as a shutdown would cost the economy $2 billion a day and immediately claim 750,000 jobs.

There was optimism amongst negotiators after the Presidential Emergency Board’s recommendations were published, and positive negotiations were held in September. But after Unions and Railroads finally came to an agreement, four out of twelve unions rejected the deal when it was put to a mandatory vote for the rank-and-file. All four cited a lack of quality-of-life provisions in the contract.

Biden insists the fight for expanded sick leave “isn’t over”, vowing he will “continue that fight until we succeed.” But the President is talking about broader changes to US employment law and it is not a battle vulnerable rail workers will see the fruits of for a long time. Union heads have vowed they’re not defeated and will keep fighting for their workers.

The agreement signed into law does come with significant positive changes for rail workers, however. The new contract includes a 24% pay rise over five years and a $5,000 bonus and voluntarily assigned days off.

Progressive Democrats sought to include seven days of paid sick leave, as a compromise agreement to appease worker demands for increased quality of life measures. However, the Senate struck down this additional condition, leaving workers disappointed. Senator Bernie Sanders pushed hard for include the additional paid sick leave but the Democrats could only muster 52 votes, 8 short of the requirement. This effort was hampered by Biden’s insistence that any late amendments risked scuppering the agreement altogether.

Railroad representatives insist meeting Union demands over sick leave would cripple their ability to reinvest in crucial infrastructure, but workers and progressive politicians doubt these claims. Bernie Sanders pointed out on Wednesday that guaranteeing seven days of paid sick leave would only cost the industry just 2% of its total profits. “Please do not tell us that the rail industry cannot afford to guarantee paid sick days to their workers”, Sanders implored.

Republicans would not agree to the additional sick leave, whilst an amendment to delay the deadline by 60 days was also rejected.

Biden emphasised that despite the disappointment of some, two-thirds of Unions had accepted the terms in recognition that “what was negotiated was so much better than anything they ever had.” Indeed, this is the largest wage package increase in nearly five decades, and never before has any paid sick leave been included in rail contracts.

"We're going to avoid the rail strike, keep the rails running, keep things moving, and I'm going to go back and we're going to get paid leave not just for rail workers, but for all workers," the President emphasised.

But there is a feeling of lingering betrayal amongst some union members. Biden has repeatedly declared the “unions built the middle class”, and the last time Congress stepped in to end a strike (1992) then Senator Biden was one of only six who supported the labor strikes. But he has been accused of not following through on his pro-Union rhetoric. “The actions speak for themselves, don’t tell me what you are. Show me what you are,” said Ross Grooters, co-chair of the advocacy group Railroad Workers United. The Railroad Workers Union simply said Biden “blew it.”

A spokesperson for the reform group BMWED Rank and File United emphasised that “a vast majority of our membership lives pay-check to pay-check. Taking four days off to care for a child or ourselves is a choice many have to make, whether to rest up at home and get better, or go to work and possibly get sicker.”

Hugh Sawyer, a railroad engineer of 34 years, echoed Grooters’ sentiment. “I feel like he’s just thrown us under the bus”, he commented. The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters emphasised a sense of double betrayal. Biden has not only denied them the right to strike through his interjection but also denied them “of the benefit they would likely otherwise obtain if they were not denied their right to strike,” the group said in a statement.

Two U.S. railroads have since seen investors call for the individual railroad to take the incentive and provide greater sick leave. An investor from Trillium Asset Management, an investor in Union Pacific, described a “clear business case” for including the measure. Trillium argue such measures have broad economic benefits including reducing workforce turnover. The investors urge railroads to take a long-term view of investment to facilitate the initial drop in profits, and have proposed an advisory vote at upcoming shareholder meetings set to be held in spring.

Ultimately, however, this is a long shot. While a significant pay increase will be well received in a faltering economic environment, American rail workers have once again been denied rights afforded to millions of workers across the world. Under U.S. law rail contracts do not expire but periodically are put up for renegotiation. Between the global pandemic and months of deadlock, it has been three years since workers were first entitled to fresh terms. If this trend is anything to go by, it may be a long time before Hugh Sawyer, or any of his colleagues, can afford to get sick.

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