How a railroad labor dispute ended up in Congress’s lap

Three years and over

The previous round of contracts between a dozen unions and freight rail operators expired in 2019 and the parties have engaged in recurring negotiations over the past two years. Things came to a head this fall when the Biden administration stepped up its involvement in hopes of brokering a deal that would run through 2024.

Biden announced Sept. 15 that a tentative agreement had been reached, following a marathon negotiating session at Labor Department headquarters in DC. But the agreement had to be ratified by members of each individual union, and four of the 12 ultimately rejected it, citing its shortcomings on paid leave and other working conditions they oppose.

These rejections raised the possibility of workers going on strike, and a shutdown by one union would shut down the entire freight rail system as none of the other unions would continue to work on another’s picket line. A strike would ripple throughout the economy, halting shipments of everything from consumer staples to chemicals for drinking water. The rail industry has estimated that a strike would cost the country an additional $2 billion a day.

What made sick leave the top issue?

The biggest stumbling block in the negotiations was paid sick leave, which most railroad workers do not get in the traditional sense. The railways argue that their paid leave is generous – up to five weeks a year – and if workers are off sick for a week or more, they can get partial pay for their absence.

But the workers point out that these benefits do not help you if you wake up with Covid or the flu, or if your child has an ear infection and needs to go to the doctor because he cannot get paid leave without notice. In these cases, workers can “mark” that they will not be available for work that day, but they will not be paid and they could be penalized for missing work without notice.

Rail operators have taken a strong stance against the large-scale expansion of this type of unscheduled leave, in part due to the emergence of « precisely planned railroading », an approach that has radically reshaped the way transportation operates. freight railway in search of maximum efficiency. Worse still, the railways have laid off about a third of their workforce over the past six years to cut costs. Some workers have complained that the railroads have cut staff so heavily that furloughs are hard to get approved, and they fear retaliation if they try.

Why Congress Can Intervene

Labor law works differently for railway workers, who are covered by a 1926 law called the Railway Labor Act. (Airlines were later included in this law as well.) The law established an intentionally long and elaborate national mediation and arbitration process, as well as “cooling-off periods” at many points along the way to encourage both parties to agree. a deal given the crucial role the railways – and now, the airlines – play in the economy.

Yet it is not the RLA but the Commerce Clause of the Constitution that gives Congress the power to intervene to prevent a strike. Congress can pass a law to impose the recommendations of arbitrators appointed by the president, contractual agreements that have been rejected by the workers or anything else they want.

How did things go before

Although labor negotiations in this sector are often contentious, they have rarely fallen into the lap of Congress in recent decades.

The most comparable recent example came two decades ago when railroad workers went on strike and Congress ended it in one day.

But congressional intervention was more common in the early 20th century, and has happened 18 times since the law went into effect.


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