Congressional Democrats are moving toward a vote that would override the wishes of unionized rail workers by imposing a new contract with the nation’s major rail carriers.
The memberships of four out of twelve rail unions — including the largest — have voted against the proposal, sending their leaders back to the bargaining table for a better deal.
But top Democrats are planning to force the contract on them through legislation in order to head off a massive rail strike in early December that could hurt the economy.
President Joe Biden called on Congress to pass a bill enforcing the tentative contract, which topped the agenda at a Tuesday meeting between Biden and congressional leaders from both parties.
“It’s not an easy call, but I think we have to do it. The economy’s at risk,” Biden said after the meeting.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) endorsed Biden’s plan.
“I don’t like going against the ability of the unions to strike,” Pelosi said. “But weighing the equities, we must avoid a strike.”
Pelosi said the House would vote on Wednesday. The Senate could follow sometime after.
Lawmakers have noted that a rail stoppage would halt cargo shipments and likely create product shortages, worsening inflation that’s only just begun to show signs of abating. But if they impose the contract, Democrats would be nullifying the will of rank-and-file union members who rejected the tentative agreement brokered by their leaders.
“[Paid leave] is a real easy ask. And it is necessary because of the way railroads are operating.”
To make things even more awkward for the party, workers have been holding out largely for paid sick days and better quality-of-life provisions in their contracts — issues for which Democrats fashion themselves as champions.
Some Democrats suggested they might try to alter the deal. Sen Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called the omission of paid sick days “outrageous” and suggested he will push for an amendment to the bill providing more leave.
“Will I demand a vote to ensure that workers in the railroad industry have what tens of millions of workers have, and workers here on Capitol Hill have: guaranteed paid sick leave? The answer is yes,” Sanders said.
“I’m hopeful we can guarantee them a week of sick days and I’m working with Sen. Sanders and others to get that done,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) told HuffPost.
But Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told HuffPost that meddling with the contract would make it harder to pass.
“I think if we start messing around with that it could get real messy real fast,” Thune said.
Biden seems to be in line with Thune. The White House said in a statement that tweaking the deal, however “well-intentioned,” would “risk delay and a debilitating shutdown.”
The unions have spent months negotiating new contracts with the group representing the largest rail carriers, including BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific. While eight unions approved a tentative agreement in September, four other unions representing the majority of workers covered by the contracts voted it down.
Rail workers are subject to a different collective bargaining law than most other private-sector workers, and it’s much more difficult for them to go on strike. Because of the impact a rail work stoppage could have on commerce, Congress has the ability to step in and impose a contract on both sides — a fact that weakens unions’ leverage during negotiations.
The White House tried to mediate the talks starting back in the summer. Biden hailed the tentative agreement he helped broker in September, but many workers were unsatisfied with its details and cast their votes against it. Biden said he was “reluctant” to override the contract ratification process in a tweet thread Monday, but argued that “Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.”
Ross Grooters, an Iowa-based rail worker, told HuffPost on Tuesday that many workers were disappointed, if not surprised, to see Democrats moving toward implementing the contract. He said he holds out hope that lawmakers will find a way to improve the deal and add paid sick leave.
“That is a real easy ask,” said Grooters, who’s a co-chair of Railroad Workers United, a group of activists from several rail unions. “And it is necessary because of the way railroads are operating and the way they’ve failed to adequately staff the industry.”
Grooters said workers are tired of having so little control over their personal lives due to punitive scheduling systems.
“Railroads have really tried to adapt to the current corporate culture,” he said. “They want all the things that make it profitable without the things that also come along with that, which means taking care of their workforce.”
Grooters said there were probably some workers who didn’t like the deal but voted in favor of it anyway, knowing Congress could implement it regardless to avoid a strike.
One of the unions that voted against the deal, BMWED, a division of the Teamsters, said in a statement Tuesday that the deal Biden wants to impose “does not address [the] rail industry disease.”
“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 union said.