Biden and Democrats Are Walking a Tightrope With Rail Worker Union Allies

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

When Democrats secured a trifecta in the 2020 elections—winning control of both chambers of Congress and the White House—labor advocates rejoiced. Their allies, including a devout pro-union president, would be at the helm. Visions of paid leave, organizing reforms, and more worker-friendly initiatives seemed within reach.

But one by one, those dreams began to crumble.

Throughout the protracted, deeply negotiated process of crafting the Build Back Better (BBB) bill— which, in essence, later became the Inflation Reduction Act—Democrats fought tooth and nail to include expanded paid parental and medical leave. But those proposals were cut before passage.

Democrats’ other sweeping labor package, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), passed the House months ago. It would allow workers more freedom to unionize, and increase protections from retaliating management. But that’s stuck in the Senate, too.

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And now, in their final days of united control of the government before Republicans officially take control of the House, Democrats are actively undermining a major union’s contract negotiations. And there are serious doubts on whether they’ll be able to secure the key ask from affected rail workers: increased paid sick leave.

It’s the era of labor policy that wasn’t. And the political left, unsurprisingly, isn’t psyched.

“There’s been a rift between employers and employees generally over the last several decades where employees have had to fight incredibly hard for things that I think should be basic human needs,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), one of the leading progressives pushing for paid sick leave in a tentative rail-labor agreement. “I hate that Congress had to come in. But we did what we had to do.”

On Wednesday, the House voted to send two separate bills to the Senate: one to avert the rail strike altogether, and one to ensure seven days of paid sick leave for rail workers. The bill to force a tentative agreement between freight rail bosses and their employees passes handedly, with dozens of Republicans joining in.

Senate Republicans are expected to largely oblige the deal, although some—like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Josh Hawley (R-MO)—have indicated they don’t want to vote against a bill workers don’t support.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., are seen after a meeting about avoiding a railroad worker strike with President Joe Biden at the White House on Nov. 29, 2022.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images</div>

After a meeting between Biden and the so-called “four corners” of congressional leadership Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “We’re gonna need to pass a bill.”

But the second bill to ensure seven paid sick days only received three GOP votes in the House. That’s not the best sign for the bill’s prospects in the Senate, where it will need at least 60 votes for passage.

Ahead of the deadline for an agreement on Dec. 9, there are still questions about how Senate Democrats will proceed.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has vowed to force a vote on paid sick days. Yet amid the chaos Wednesday, even he didn’t know if the proposal would proceed as two separate votes, an amendment to the original bill, or some variation thereof. But speaking to reporters, Sanders was sure a vote of some kind would occur.

“I hope and expect Congress will do the right thing and stand up with the workers… Your question is, are we going to have that vote? Yeah, we will have a vote.”

Other Democrats took a more reserved tone on the situation altogether. They empathize with rail workers—but feel a potential strike is too much to risk.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Activists in support of unionized rail workers protest outside the U.S. Capitol Building on Nov. 29, 2022 in Washington, DC.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images</div>

Activists in support of unionized rail workers protest outside the U.S. Capitol Building on Nov. 29, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

“I certainly am very sympathetic to what labor is trying to get done. But I’m also committed to making sure we get a bill to the president,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) told reporters Wednesday.

It’s an odd position for a party that prides itself on its pro-labor policies and often relishes in union endorsements. As unionizations have begun trickling through some of America’s largest corporations—like Starbucks and Amazon in recent years—Democrats positioned themselves as allies.

Then again, it’s rare that a potential strike could have such a catastrophic effect on the nation.

If an agreement isn’t struck with rail workers, for starters, it’s set to cost the U.S. economy roughly $2 billion a day. Supply chains will be wrecked. Grocery stores will face shortages and pharmacies will see delayed shipments for essential prescriptions. Water treatments will be delayed, leading to literal shitstorms in urban hubs that count on quick ins-and-outs of wastewater.

And all of that would come before the holiday season, no less.

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Biden himself said Monday, “As a proud pro-labor President, I'm reluctant to override the ratification procedures and views of those who voted against the agreement. But in this case—where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions—I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.”

For months, Biden had stayed away from forcing an agreement on rail workers, working to negotiate a deal alongside Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. But over time, negotiations reportedly began to deteriorate.

As a result of the decision to ask Congress to intervene, labor unions have expressed disappointment in the administration they’d so consistently considered an ally. But Democrats are remaining somewhat mum about whether forcing a deal with rail workers could have lasting impacts on their party’s standing with labor organizations. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), for one, wouldn’t say whether he was concerned about the potential fractures.

Stepping into an elevator in the Senate basement, Casey told The Daily Beast, “I’ll let the political commentators weigh in on that.”

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