Inside Biden’s decision to stop a railroad strike

Biden is therefore pinning his hopes on the Democratic-led Congress to resolve the impasse, which looks likely to happen in the coming week despite grumbling from some lawmakers in both parties. It’s unclear whether they will until shipments of some essential supplies, such as chlorine for drinking water, begin to halt this weekend.

Biden’s decision to seek congressional intervention Monday night came after phone calls in recent days with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the trio of White House aides start on the issue, three people familiar with the planning told POLITICO. Ultimately, they said, Biden felt the backlash from unions and highly progressive members of Congress would be limited.

‘We’ve reached a point where even if we could get the parties to agree around a table, the ratification period would exceed the shutdown date’ of Dec. 9, a senior Biden official said of the process. agonizing decision. The official, like the others, declined to be identified by name to speak freely about the final days before the decision. « It has therefore become impossible to conclude and ratify an agreement before the key date. »

A railroad strike could turn an already struggling economy upside down at the cost of about $2 billion a day. But the Biden-approved deal will leave a dozen unions representing more than 100,000 rail workers uncompromising on issues like paid sick leave, a bitter outcome for members of the pro-Labour president’s most beloved constituency.

Anticipating those complaints, the White House crafted talking points noting that the deal will include worker-friendly provisions from a tentative deal Walsh helped broker Sept. 15, which temporarily averted a railroad threat. These include a 24% wage increase, as well as the wording of recent legislation aimed at spurring domestic microchip manufacturing.

The official said the White House does not want to extend rail negotiations until January. « If you don’t get a deal, you let the House GOP introduce the bill to fix it? » said the official. « It wouldn’t be this bill. »

Union and progressive anger nonetheless percolated on Tuesday, though it so far appears to fall short of the sweeping denunciations demanded by some union activists.

The Brotherhood of Way Maintenance Employees, one of four unions whose members had rejected a draft contractual agreement with the railways, said it was « deeply disappointed with » the president.

« A call for Congress to act immediately to pass legislation that adopts tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave ignores the concerns of railroad workers, » the union said in a statement. « It deprives railway workers of their right to strike while depriving them of the benefit they would otherwise likely get if they were not deprived of their right to strike. »

Still, the union reserved its fury at the « robber baron railroads » who had pushed back against its demands. So have labor supporters such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“In an era of record profits in the rail industry, it is unacceptable that railroad workers have ZERO paid sick days guaranteed,” Sanders said on Twitter. « I intend to stall consideration of the railroad legislation until a roll call vote is taken on guaranteeing 7 paid sick days to railroad workers in America. »

Some GOP members have used the issue to attack Biden from the left, describing the action proposed by Congress as a betrayal of workers. « Asking Congress to meddle in this and turn its back on workers is foolish“, tweeted the senator. Rick Scottwho loves his fellow Republican senator from Florida. Marco Rubio criticized the agreement.

The White House could have asked Congress to extend the « cooling off » period for rail negotiations beyond Dec. 9 to give the parties more time to come together. But a second administration official said the parties to the talks — the largest railroads, as well as railroad unions that were still resisting the September deal — had not asked for an extension.

The unions have also not asked for further intervention from the White House to broker a deal, the official said.

« Why didn’t we ask for a cooling extension? » said the official. « The simple answer is that there was no request for an extension and all parties involved have acknowledged that they are not making progress. »

So late Monday, Biden found himself having to hold his nose and do something he hates: limit the ability of unions to use all the tools at their disposal, including strikes, to impose the best contract terms. possible.

“As a proud pro-Labour president, I hesitate to override the ratification procedures and the opinions of those who voted against the deal,” Biden explained in his statement late Monday. « But in this case — where the economic impact of a shutdown would harm millions of other workers and families — I think Congress needs to use its powers to pass this deal. »

The first administration official said the bill will not remove any of the additional side agreements between unions and the railroads that were included in the Sept. 15 deal. The unions would also receive all the other concessions the railroads have made in individual contract talks since then – but not everything the unions wanted, especially on paid leave.

Congressional approval of a bill to force the deal seems likely but far from certain. While the House is likely to pass a bill relatively smoothly, any senator could slow down the process on the other side of the Capitol.

Ultimately, Biden and his top advisers calculated that the Sept. 15 deal had broad enough support among railroad unions that the White House could ask Congress to use its unilateral power to enshrine the contract.

As a senator, Biden himself opposed the use of congressional authority to impose labor agreements on railroad workers. Congress has exercised this power more than a dozen times since the Railway Labor Act was passed in 1926, but it hasn’t done so since 1991.

This time, the president resisted the path of Congress for months. But with fertilizer companies planning to halt shipments and growing threats to the flow of products needed for clean water, Biden decided time was up.

And the last thing the President or the White House wanted was a crippling strike stopping the movement of an estimated 40% of freight, denying critical components, supplies and chemicals to a wide range of industries, from farmers to car manufacturers.

Any such disruption could also increase upward pressure on prices. Inflation is still at its highest level in 40 years after a massive government stimulus during the Covid-19 pandemic and amid a large gap in strong consumer demand and the limited supply of available workers and materials used for finished products.

The White House economics team has spent many months of intense work helping to repair Covid-related breakdowns in US supply chains. A prolonged rail strike threatened to at least partially undo much of that, while potentially stranding passengers who rely on train lines — such as Amtrak’s long-distance routes — that run in part on freight lines.

A third administration official who also declined to be identified challenged the notion that the White House had no choice but to look to the powers of Congress to force a rail deal. « It’s like we’ve exhausted all available routes, » the person said.

Nick Niedzwiadek contributed to this report.


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