Workers Furious Over Biden Move to Preempt Rail Strike

The White House’s intervention answers the call of rail giants and corporate lobbying groups who’ve been pushing for congressional action as rail companies refuse to drop their opposition to workers’ basic sick leave demands.

Sept. 30, 2020: Presidential candidate Joe Biden campaigning by train. (Adam Schultz / Biden for President, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

By Jake Johnson
Common Dreams

Rank-and-file rail workers voiced frustration and anger late Monday after Joe Biden — a self-described “pro-labor president” — urged Congress to pass legislation forcing unions to accept a contract agreement without any paid sick days, a step that would avert a looming nationwide strike and deliver a win for the profitable railroad industry.

“By forcing workers into an agreement which doesn’t address basic needs like healthcare and sick time, President Joe Biden is choosing railroads over workers and the economy,” said Ross Grooters, an engineer and co-chair of Railroad Workers United, an inter-union alliance that supports public ownership of the national rail system.

Another worker was more blunt in a text message to labor reporter Jonah Furman: “Words cannot express how fucking livid I am at this administration… people in power, LIKE HIM, would rather screw workers than stand up to fucking robber barons.”

While Congress could put forth legislation that would improve the tentative White House-brokered contract deal announced in September, Biden made clear he wants lawmakers “to pass legislation immediately to adopt the tentative agreement between railroad workers and operators — without any modifications or delay — to avert a potentially crippling national rail shutdown.”

The Union Pacific Davidson Yard in Fort Worth, Texas. (Lars Plougmann, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

That agreement, which has been rejected by more than half of the country’s unionized rail workforce, does not include a single day of paid sick leave and would only allow three penalty-free days off per year for medical visits. But even that time off is heavily constrained: It’s unpaid; can only be taken on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday; and must be scheduled at least 30 days in advance.

“These agreements were rejected because the quality of life rail workers and their families have today is abysmal,” Ash Anderson, a member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED) — one of the unions that voted against ratifying the tentative deal — wrote on Facebook. “There were no provisions to improve the quality of life for rail workers, who continue to be exploited by companies that are earning record-breaking profits while their service suffers and they cut their workforce to the bone.”

Anderson continued:

“I just want Americans to see the stories of these men and women, the stories of their families. I want Americans to recognize that these workers are being driven out of their chosen profession by the continued harsh conditions, callous discipline, long hours far from home, and basic lack of respect and dignity in the work that President Biden just stated was too important to allow to stop, regardless the cost.

The railroads’ record profit margins are safe, their exorbitant stock buybacks and shareholder returns are secured. Americans will have all the conveniences available this busy shopping season. Rail workers will work sick to make sure it’s all done, because that’s what they have to do.”

Shortly following Biden’s statement, outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced her chamber will move this week to take up legislation requiring rail workers to accept the tentative deal and denying them their right to strike. Without a contract deal or congressional action, a strike could begin early next month.

Echoing Biden, Pelosi insisted that lawmakers are “reluctant to bypass the standard ratification process” and declared that “we must recognize that railroads have been selling out to Wall Street to boost their bottom lines, making obscene profits while demanding more and more from railroad workers.”

“But,” the Democratic leader added, “we must act to prevent a catastrophic nationwide rail strike, which would grind our economy to a halt.”

The White House’s intervention answers the call of rail giants and corporate lobbying groups—including the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce — that have been pushing for and banking on congressional action as contract talks remain at a standstill, with rail companies refusing to drop their opposition to workers’ basic sick leave demands.

Rail unions had originally pushed for 15 days of paid sick leave, a policy that rail companies estimated would cost around $688 million a year — less than what billionaire Warren Buffett, the CEO of BNSF Railway’s parent company, added to his net worth in a single day last week.

Warren Buffett in 2013. (Fortune Live Media, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

The unions have since moved down to asking for four paid sick days, but rail companies remain opposed even as they rake in huge profits and enrich their executives and shareholders. The Lever reported in September that “the CEOs of five of the largest railroad conglomerates have been paid more than $200 million in the last three years, and company shareholders have been boosted by nearly $200 billion in stock buybacks and dividends over the last dozen years.”

Matthew Weaver, a carpenter with BMWED, told The New York Times that Biden’s decision to step in and force workers to accept a contract agreement opposed by a majority of rail union members “seems to cater to the oligarchs.”

“All of rail labor is going to suffer because of this,” said Weaver.

Grooters of Railroad Workers United argued that Congress “should ignore White House shortsightedness and introduce the labor-friendly version of a railroad bill”—but it’s not yet clear whether progressive lawmakers in the House or Senate will attempt to force amendments to the tentative agreement.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), an outspoken supporter of rail workers, told reporters Monday that any legislation preventing a strike must guarantee workers sick leave.

Citing unnamed sources, CNN reported late Monday that “following House passage, Senate action could occur later this week or next.”

“The Senate is expected to have the votes to break a filibuster on the bill to avert a potential railway strike, according to those sources,” the outlet noted. “There are likely to be at least 10 Republicans who will vote with most Senate Democrats to overcome a 60-vote threshold. The only question is how quickly the bill can come to the floor since any senator can object, dragging out the process and delaying a quick vote.”

“Sources are watching Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders closely to see if he upends an effort to get a quick vote,” CNN added. “A Sanders spokesman declined to comment.”

[Late Tuesday afternoon, Sanders tweeted that he intended to “block consideration of the rail legislation until a roll call vote occurs on guaranteeing 7 paid sick days to rail workers in America.”]

Jake Johnson is a staff writer for Common Dreams.

This article is from  Common Dreams.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

26 comments for “Workers Furious Over Biden Move to Preempt Rail Strike

  1. Renate
    November 30, 2022 at 20:25

    As always government is bipartisan when they gang up against labor.

    Nancy said, “we must recognize that railroads have been selling out to Wall Street to boost their bottom lines, making obscene profits while demanding more and more from railroad workers.”

    “But,” the Democratic leader added, “we must act to prevent a catastrophic nationwide rail strike, which would grind our economy to a halt.”

    She said what had to be said, now back to business as usual. Words are cheap but they will get votes.

  2. Renate
    November 30, 2022 at 20:06

    The government never really supported labor. The guns were turned on striking workers and the Democrats were silent when the unions were destroyed and that has not changed. Socialism has become a four-letter word, and Biden is proud to say he is not a socialist. Cutthroat neoliberal economics is their religion.

    Public opinion has been manipulated against labor while glorifying cutthroat capitalism, government and big money worked to indoctrinate our children starting in grade school all the way through higher education.
    Nothing will change, that would be progressive policy and that can’t be.

  3. nomad
    November 30, 2022 at 16:35

    There use to be Dems that were for the working class long ago. Now, they chase $.
    There are only 2 parties -Elites and main street.
    Elites pays $ to the Dems and the Repubs, and they get what they want most of the time.
    Main street gets ripped again and again.

    This why we need governmental regulatory and financial reforms that includes penalties to the lawmakers and elites.
    This does not help when people tend to vote for the same bad people again and again.

  4. lester
    November 30, 2022 at 16:10

    When did Dems last represent working people? Not since Bill Clinton, at least. Biden has a loooong history of kissing up to Big Business.

    • robert e williamson jr
      November 30, 2022 at 21:42

      Try LBJ, once Kennedy was murdered the neocons took over. Hell, the likes of “Hank the Shank ” Kissinger phoned LBJ with advice and such while working for Nixon.

      Now we hear rumbling of CIA having something to do with Nixon’s down fall , something t likely possible considering many agents never stop serving CIA even in retirement and the fact that Nixon planned to do away with the agency same as JFK.

      Biden has been there in DC ever since 1973, he was 29 when elected in 1972. Elected that is with the help of the AFL-CIO, 29 at the time of the election, he turned 30 before being sworn in.

      It has been nothing but down hill for Unions ever since.

  5. Willow
    November 30, 2022 at 15:27

    If the union management caves, the railworkers should hold the line and strike/walk out anyway. Like the West Virginia teachers who defied their union bosses and the law against public employee strikes. The teachers eventually were given more than they “bargained” for, 2 percent and won 5 percent wage increase instead.

  6. Michael McNulty
    November 30, 2022 at 12:15

    We could find out in eight days if it’s the executive class or the working class who are vital to keep a country running. Give all the exec’s and owners and politicians a week off and watch the country tick over just fine. Then give all the workers a week off and watch the country grind to a halt on the first day. That’s why they’re desperate to avoid strikes; not because of money lost etc, but because more people would come to realise just who keeps the country running – it’s mostly them, not those who are paid the most.

  7. Paula
    November 30, 2022 at 12:03

    “Spit on your own and nothing happens. Spit together and you can drown the bastards.” Unions and the workers they represent are the way to reclaim a country led by and for the people. Stay strong unions. You have a long history. Never forget what Joe Luria and others have said, Dissent is patriotic.

  8. rgl
    November 30, 2022 at 11:40

    Annnnd … don’t forget to vote ….

    • Fuzzy
      November 30, 2022 at 13:21

      Really. Both parties are completely corrupt. The DEMS have better propaganda. But let’s keep funneling our money to Ukraine. Maybe they can get sick days.

    • lester
      November 30, 2022 at 16:14

      Is there a choice? Is Godzilla a better choice than Mechagodzilla?

  9. Packard
    November 30, 2022 at 08:44

    If money alone can make this awkward little problem go away, I would place my bets on the rail workers and their union.

    After all, it is not as if anyone is ever going to have to pay for any of it…right? [TANSTAAFL]

  10. mgr
    November 30, 2022 at 07:47

    More and more, both at home and abroad, America’s totalitarian-in-all-but-name government is being forced to reveal its true face.

  11. torture this
    November 30, 2022 at 03:16



  12. rosemerry
    November 30, 2022 at 01:16

    Throughout US history this has been the pattern with railroads. Look at the wicked Chinese who have build two thirds of the world’s high speed rail NOT by private companies for profit, but for the people. Public transit is what civilized nations need!!! Unions are almost missing in the USA private sector. I wonder why!

  13. Jeff Harrison
    November 30, 2022 at 00:37

    They could, of course, all quit. That’s what seems to have been happening in the rest of US business. Why not railroads?

  14. Ed Grystar
    November 29, 2022 at 23:20

    Unfortunately the top leaders of the AFL-CIO have given Biden this ridiculous title of being the most pro union ever. They are the highest paid leaders in the world who “lead” organizations that are not much more than the company unions of old. Tied to the companies as “partners” they lack inspiration and vision that is necessary to fight corporate greed. An internal ideological revolt inside labor is necessary to move toward class struggle unionism or its more defeats. Hope the workers realize this. A teaching moment for all.

  15. November 29, 2022 at 18:48

    One more example of how incredibly naive progressives, especially pro-labor progressives have been when they keep voting for Democratic Party candidates. Naivety bordering on scienter.

  16. Lois Gagnon
    November 29, 2022 at 17:26

    Biden shows his true colors once again. He supports Wall St. and the oligarch class over labor. I hope the Biden worshiping liberals are paying attention.

    • LarcoMarco
      November 30, 2022 at 12:49

      Hackeem Jeffries will stand up Pelosi and Biden! /s

  17. Roger Hoffmann
    November 29, 2022 at 17:24

    One has to wonder just why top Democrats think Labor will support them in the next general election? They AlWAYS pose as pro-labor, then pull the ball away when it really matters.
    Do Biden, Pelosi et al think that labor unions have that short a memory?
    They’re showing their true colors. So much for lessers-of-evil.

  18. Ian Brown
    November 29, 2022 at 15:09

    The Biden Admin decides that everybody must get COVID, and that there will simultaneously be no enhanced OSHA protections or indoor air quality…and then he goes to prevent rail workers from getting even a day of sick leave when we now have an illness that can lay you up for weeks if unlucky.

    I hope the people actually notice this time instead.

  19. Peace Frog
    November 29, 2022 at 14:48

    What are the elites and govt going to do if over 30k workers strike? Arrest them all? I think not. Its civil disobedience. Legalities are always gray. I hope they strike to let the elites and the for purchase “”govt” know who is in charge. Solidarity to our brothers and sisters out there!

    • Anthony Noel
      November 30, 2022 at 02:27

      Well you got a good idea of what they’ll do earlier the summer in Canada, they’ll freeze and seize donations, they’ll shut down strikers bank accounts, they’ll send in the cops and national guard to break them up, and they’ll seize strike funds from the union coffers.

      • Peace frog
        November 30, 2022 at 07:16

        Sure its a risk, but they can call the oligarchs bluff. Say they arrest them, but who’s going to do the work? They cannot arrest that many people. Impossible. But again, if they arrest, who does the work? They can’t back fill these jobs. A few days of disrupting the system will be enough to make a point. Lastly, they cant force people to work … Unless they hold weapons to their heads. The disruptiveness will be so significant that the corps and govt will have to capitulate.

      • Willow
        November 30, 2022 at 15:32

        I hope so. That will finally rip the false pro labor mask off the the Democrats and show the workers who they really are.

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