Briefing

Lawmakers dodged a major railway strike just before the holidays. Why are progressives so mad?

Labor leaders and their allies expected more from the "most pro-union president"

Last Friday, President Biden signed into law a bill overwhelmingly passed by the Senate one day earlier, forcing railway unions and owners to abide by a contract negotiated by his administration this past September. But progressives say Biden hasn't done enough to help workers. Here's everything you need to know:

What did Biden sign?

Biden signed a bill imposing the negotiation brokered by his administration earlier this year and making it illegal for railway workers to strike. The legislation came just under a week ahead of a Dec. 9 deadline, after which a potential railway strike would have had a crippling effect on the country's shipping industry, and the economy as a whole, during the year's busiest shopping season.

During the signing ceremony held at the White House, Biden hailed the deal, saying it "ends a difficult rail dispute and helps our nation avoid what coming out of that would have been an economic catastrophe in a very bad time in the calendar." But he also acknowledged the growing frustration within his party's progressive wing, who see the legislatively mandated contract as both insufficient for workers as well as undue federal interference. "I know this bill doesn't have paid sick leave these rail workers, and frankly every worker in America, deserves," Biden admitted Friday. "But," he added, "that fight isn't over." 

Why are progressives so mad? 

As Biden noted in his remarks, the legislation passed by the Senate does not include paid sick leave for rail workers — one of the main bargaining points for the unions representing the laborers, and one of the major reasons the four unions representing the majority of affected workers ultimately rejected the administration-negotiated September proposal to begin with. 

"It is not enough to 'share workers' concerns,'" the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, one of the unions to reject the deal, wrote in a statement ahead of the Senate vote. "A call to Congress to act immediately to pass legislation that adopts tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave ignores the Railroad Workers' concerns." 

After Congress failed to approve a measure that would have added mandatory sick leave to the legislation, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), one of the lawmakers leading the Senate side of that effort, wrote in a statement that he was "disappointed" in the loss, and called out — although not by name — West Virginia's Joe Manchin as the sole Democrat who did not vote for the amendment. "This struggle is not over," Sanders declared. "At a time of record-breaking profits for the rail industry, it is disgraceful that railroad workers do not have a single day of paid sick leave."

Asked when workers should "expect sick days," Biden quipped during his Friday signing ceremony that it would come "as soon as I can convince Republicans to see the light."

Is this really all about sick days? 

Not exactly. While paid sick leave — which rail workers don't currently have — has been a major sticking point in the contract negotiations, the legislation passed by Congress and signed by Biden represents a broader problem for many on the president's left flank: the general interference in the collective bargaining process, and workers' right to strike, in the first place. 

It's a frustration hinted at in a statement from the SMART-TD rail union, one of the largest unions, which had previously rejected the White House negotiated contract. "As prescribed by the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the SMART Transportation Division acknowledges the ability of Congress to legally impose the Tentative National Rail Agreement upon the operating-craft employees represented by the SMART-TD," the group wrote. "While it is unfortunate that our members were not able to approve the agreement in which they work under, we thank the President, House Speaker, Senate leadership, and Cabinet members for their support at the negotiating table and on the floor of Congress in an attempt to achieve more for our members."

Incoming Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.) shared a similar sentiment, tweeting in support of reports that rail unions would pressure Biden to address sick leave through an executive order. "If POTUS is going to intervene in workers' collective bargaining then it should be to deliver on the basic demands of workers," she wrote. "Not corporate robber barons."

In the Los Angeles Times, business columnist Michael Hiltzik laid bare the underlying issue. Acknowledging that a rail strike would very well have dire consequences for the U.S. economy and millions of households ahead of the holidays, Hiltzik wrote, "That's the whole point of strikes — to impose economic pain in order to generate pressure for settlement. This is almost the only leverage that organized labor enjoys. It's a categoric error to interpret that leverage as something that absolves employers of their responsibilities to negotiate fairly."

In other words, while the government may legally be allowed to force the negotiating parties to abide by an unapproved contract, doing so essentially denies workers of their sole point of leverage. 

As CBS News Radio White House correspondent Steven Portnoy pointed out, there is precedent for Congress to interfere in a railway labor dispute — it happened in 1992, with the Senate voting 87-6 to end a two-day strike by rail workers. Addressing the decision to force the strike to a close, one of the six "nay" voting senators said "that is what the workers fear and the railroad companies are counting on." It was Delaware's Joe Biden. 

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