'He's not stepping up': Union workers feel let down by 'pro-union' Joe Biden amid rail dispute

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden hails unions at almost every turn, often declaring "unions built the middle class" and that his goal is to be "the most pro-union president" in U.S. history.

But as he urges Congress to intervene in a labor dispute to avert a freight rail strike before the holidays, the president is facing a backlash from labor allies. Union workers hoped to secure paid sick leave in a final contract, among other assurances, but congressional action pushed by Biden would force some terms they oppose.

"The actions speak for themselves. Don't tell me what you are. Show me what you are," said Ross Grooters, a railroad engineer from Des Moines, Iowa, and co-chair of the advocacy group Railroad Workers United. "He's not stepping up for workers in the way that he should be."

More: Biden to Congress: Intervene in labor dispute, avert rail strike that would 'devastate' US

Inside the rail dispute

  • Four union holdouts: Negotiations over a new contract between rail carriers and 12 rail unions go back three years. Members of eight of the unions voted to ratify a contract proposal that the Biden administration helped orchestrated in September, but four other unions rejected the deal.

  • Paid sick leave a sticking point: Many union members held back their support in hopes of getting paid sick leave in the contract and changes to strict attendance policies that limit time off for emergencies. Among the holdouts is SMART Transportation Division, representing about 28,000 conductors

  • The economic risk: A rail strike or lockout could paralyze the economy by halting the shipment of many foods, particularly grain, and critical goods before next month's holiday season.

  • Dec. 9 deadline approaching: Biden, in a statement Monday, called on Congress to pass legislation to adopt the tentative deal reached in September. His move came as unions and freight rail companies faced a Dec. 9 deadline to finalize a deal before a strike or lockdown could occur.

More: 'The economy's at risk': Biden urges Congress to stop rail strike, fund government

The House could take up legislation to avert a possible rail strike as soon as Wednesday.
The House could take up legislation to avert a possible rail strike as soon as Wednesday.

What happens next

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House will take up legislation Wednesday morning that would set a new contract to avoid a strike. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agree the issue must be taken up "ASAP."

  • Biden called for the legislation to reflect the contract that union leaders tentatively agreed on. It includes a 24% pay increase over five years, $5,000 bonuses, voluntary assigned days off, but only one paid day off. Rail workers don't get any paid days off.

  • The legislation is likely to have some opposition, setting up a potentially dicey situation in the 50-50 split Senate for passage. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., signaled he would vote against the legislation Tuesday. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has previously slammed the deal for lacking sick leave. And some progressive House Democrats have raised concerns as well


Biden, as he kicked off a meeting with congressional leaders Tuesday, acknowledged he struggled with his appeal to Congress.

"It's not an easy call, but I think we have to do it," Biden said. "The economy is at risk."

Yet in 1992, the last time Congress intervened to stop a rail strike, then-Sen. Biden was one of six senators who voted against ending the strike.

His change in tune 30 years later underscores the difference between being a senator and president. In the White House, Biden has faced intense criticism over 40-year high inflation that has proven difficult to tame.

More: Major rail union rejects deal brokered by Biden, threatening a strike before the holidays

President Joe Biden speaks about manufacturing jobs and the economy at SK Siltron CSS, a computer chip factory in Bay City, Mich., on Nov. 29, 2022.
President Joe Biden speaks about manufacturing jobs and the economy at SK Siltron CSS, a computer chip factory in Bay City, Mich., on Nov. 29, 2022.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates a rail strike would result in thousands of factory workers being furloughed and losses of $2 billion daily from the economy. The flow of many foods, critical goods and raw materials would come to a halt, paralyzing the U.S. economy and putting as many as 765,000 Americans out of work in two weeks, according to the White House.

Ultimately, the president decided he couldn't risk more damage to a delicate economy – even if his decision disappoints his union friends.

What they are saying

  • White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the legislation to keep the freight rails operating "is not about undermining the right to strike," noting the majority of rail unions voted to adopt the contract. "The president has been very clear, he is a president for all," Jean-Pierre said, calling the potential for an economic catastrophe "unacceptable."

  • Hugh Sawyer, a railroad engineer of 34 years and union member, said he understands why Biden wants to avoid an economic disaster from a rail shutdown. But he doesn't believe the president needed to interject and end talks with unions still lacking greater scheduling flexibility, paid leave and other demands. "I feel like he's just thrown us under the bus," Sawyer said. "I really am disappointed."

  • "It is not enough to 'share' workers' concerns,'" the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters said in a statement. The group said Biden's call to Congress "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."

  • Michael Baldwin, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, said Biden let down his members. "We're trying to address an issue here of sick time. It's very important," he told CNN. "This action prevents us from reaching the end of our process."

  • One Democratic House lawmaker, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-New York, indicated he would vote against the rail legislation.  "I can’t in good conscience vote for a bill that doesn’t give rail workers the paid leave they deserve," he said in a tweet.

  • In the Senate, Rubio offered support for the unions over Biden's call for Congress to interject. "The railways & workers should go back & negotiate a deal that the workers, not just the union bosses, will accept," Rubio said in a tweet. "But if Congress is forced to do it, I will not vote to impose a deal that doesn’t have the support of the rail workers"

  • House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy predicted the legislation to prevent a rail strike will pass but added "it's unfortunate this is how we're running our economy today."

More: Gallup poll finds Americans' approval for labor unions rising under Biden administration

The big picture

Biden celebrated the tentative deal in September alongside union leaders and rail executives at the White House Rose Garden, calling it a “big win for America.”

At the time, Biden said it "validated" that management and unions can work together.

But despite winning the endorsements of the unions' leaders, their members weren't all on board.

As the nation's self-described "pro-union president," Biden would have certainly relished a deal that satisfied the unions' lingering demands. But with economic concerns still weighing on Americans, the president wasn't willing to let a strike happen.

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's 'pro-union' reputation takes hit amid rail dispute