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Railway Labor Dispute Tests Democrats’ Longtime Ties With Unions

Dec. 1, 2022, 10:05 AM

President Joe Biden’s eleventh-hour push to head off a rail strike with a Congressional intervention may have cleared the House Wednesday, but the long-term consequences for Democrats’ relationship with unions—not to mention the bill’s future in the Senate—are anyone’s guess.

The race to pre-empt a nationwide rail shutdown just before Christmas is fraying Democrats’ relationships with one another and unions themselves, with left-leaning members smarting over what they see as a betrayal of their union base. Biden finds himself in the exact jam he sought to avoid in September, when he dispatched Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to broker a deal between unions and rail executives.

The House passed the legislation Wednesday on a 290-137 bipartisan vote, forcing implementation of a labor agreement hammered out by rail companies, labor leaders, and the Biden administration months ago but rejected by workers in four of 12 unions. Fear of another supply chain meltdown overcame opposition in the House, with 79 Republicans joining 211 Democrats to pass the stop-strike measure.

By Tuesday, brewing disagreements among Democrats had spilled into public view even as a path to compromise in the Senate emerged. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sought to corral Democrats at the last minute by adding a supplemental bill that would give rail workers seven days of sick leave—but because it would come as a separate vote, it would allow lawmakers to move without the tentative agreement if needed.

The House voted 221-207 on that bill to revise the original deal to add seven days of paid sick leave.

Supporting an agreement that rail workers opposed put Democrats in an awkward position. While some found compromise in having the two bills voted on separately, eight Democrats voted against the tentative agreement, including influential pro-labor voices like Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), chairman of the Congressional Labor Caucus, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who insisted that any deal must include guaranteed sick days.

Skeptical Democrats said the tentative agreement, which offers a 24% raise, wouldn’t solve the underlying dysfunction in the rail system that’s left workers feeling burned out and mistreated.

“The government should not be interfering in union negotiations and contracts. It is a very slippery slope,” Pocan said in a statement to Bloomberg Law after the vote. “Workers deserve the ability to use everything in their means to get benefits like paid sick time.”

No Sure Bet

Biden’s gambit to involve Congress was risky from the start. For weeks, the president stayed on the sidelines as four unions voted to reject the tentative agreement, while eight others approved it. The deal looked to be in serious trouble on Nov. 21 when the SMART-Transportation Division—the largest rail union—voted it down. Without an agreement, unions would be free to strike Dec. 9, sending shockwaves through the economy before Christmas.

On Monday, as Biden called on Congress to act, the White House wasn’t sure that there were enough votes in the House, according to a person briefed on the situation who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. The outcome still remained uncertain late Tuesday.

Democratic leaders, in a last-minute play to win over progressives, introduced paid sick leave for the workers in a separate bill.

“It’s a very smart play by the speaker, who is such a master of these things,” Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) said in an interview. Levin, along with others in the progressive caucus, pushed to include sick time for workers.

The unions struggled to coordinate a response to the fast-moving legislation. Groups that voted against the proposed labor contract were furious at the thought of Congress and the White House trampling over their members. Meanwhile, larger federations struggled to balance the competing interests of their member unions—AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler didn’t weigh in publicly until Wednesday morning, an hour before the House vote.

The federation also sought to redirect criticism to the freight rail industry.

“The idea that Democrats in Congress are turning against labor is really misplaced at the end of the day,” Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, said in an interview Tuesday night. “The railroads could put sick leave in right now.”

Democrats still were divided before the vote Wednesday. Some said Congress shouldn’t get involved to avoid undercutting unions’ leverage. Others said the cost of a strike would be too great, and thought congressional intervention was fine as long the legislation included sick leave.

Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.), a co-chair of the Labor Caucus, Wednesday tweeted that the negotiations should go back to union leaders and management, saying it’s “not the time to remove the collective bargaining rights of America’s rail workers.” Norcross voted against the tentative agreement but in favor of the seven days of paid sick leave.

‘Poison Pill’

House Republicans were frustrated by the separate sick leave vote. House Transportation and Infrastructure committee ranking member Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) said it was misleading for Democrats to say that the deal doesn’t have sick leave since the tentative deal includes “several avenues of different types of leave.”

Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) said the House vote Wednesday represented a “colossal failure of Joe Union Biden,” calling the sick leave bill a “poison pill.”

Pelosi’s compromise seemed to soften the opposition of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who had threatened to torpedo a bill in the Senate if it didn’t have a paid sick leave component. Sanders told reporters Wednesday he was glad to see the House take up the issue.

Later, in a statement, Sanders and 11 Democratic senators came out in support of both House bills.

“We commend the House for addressing this outrageous situation and guaranteeing paid sick days to every rail worker in America,” they said.

—With assistance from Lillianna Byington and Emily Wilkins

To contact the reporters on this story: Ian Kullgren in Washington at ikullgren@bloombergindustry.com; Diego Areas Munhoz in Washington, D.C. at dareasmunhoz@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Genevieve Douglas at gdouglas@bloomberglaw.com