In a speech to organized labor last year, President Joe Biden said he wants to be considered the most “pro-union president” in U.S. history. So why would he step in to force a contract on unionized rail workers, angering one of his primary constituencies?
Well, probably because he was more worried about angering all Americans, who, without Biden’s intervention, could find store shelves bare at one of the busiest times of year. And then there’s the risk that disrupting the transport of fertilizer and chemicals could jeopardize the nation’s food and water supply, not to mention possible gasoline shortages that could spike fuel costs at a time when prices are beginning to ease.
Last week, just days after Biden asked congressional leaders to intervene in the dispute, the Democrat-led U.S. House and Senate voted to impose the negotiated deal on the holdout unions. The Senate voted down amendments from Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, which would have given the parties more time to negotiate, and from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, which would have added seven days of sick leave to the contract.
Biden signed the bill on Friday, with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh looking over his shoulder. Besides being the former mayor of Boston, Walsh was also a union president for the Building and Construction Trade Council. His appointment to Biden’s cabinet was just one gift the president gave the unions when he came to power.
But now, Biden is getting attacked by the same unions who helped get him elected in 2020, including by giving his campaign millions of dollars. Over sick days. Not a good look for Biden.
The unions say the current contract does not include any sick days, and that is putting workers at risk.
The rail companies have countered by pointing out that sick leave pay kicks in once an employee has been out more than four to seven days. Employees also have three personal days — up from two in prior contracts — in addition to vacation time. The contract also includes a 24% pay increase and a $1,000 annual bonus.
There are 13 unions involved in the negotiations with rail companies, and workers in nine of the unions voted to approve the contract while workers in four unions voted against ratification.
But before the contract got to any of the workers for a vote, union officials had already agreed to it in principle after negotiating with the railroad companies through a presidential emergency board created by Biden in July.
Steven Suflas, a senior management side labor attorney at Holland & Hart in Salt Lake City, said this may be due to increased activism among rank-and-file workers.
“This is a deal that union leadership agreed to,” he said. “This was the end result of hard collective bargaining over an extended period of time, and it failed ratification with the membership.”
He sees similarities with a strike last year by workers at John Deere who twice rejected a contract negotiated by their union that included a 30% wage increase — “the biggest wage package I’ve seen since the Carter administration,” Suflas said.
Why are workers more willing to strike?
“I think it’s more activism among the rank-and-file and less of a willingness to go along and support their union leadership,” he said.
This is where it connects back to Biden and his pro-union administration. Suflas said he thinks workers are more willing to organize and agitate because of changes within the Biden administration, many of which stem from decisions made by Jennifer Abruzzo, general counsel at the National Labor Relations Board, who has been trying to remake labor law by asking attorneys to bring specific cases to the board. She has already taken steps to make it easier for unions to organize.
Abruzzo, a former union attorney, sees in the National Labor Relations Act a mandate to get more involved in the relationship between employers and employees, including in nonunionized workplaces.
Whether you think that’s a good thing or not depends a lot on whether you think unions and the government make workplaces better for employees.
Sympathy for unions is at an all-time high among Americans. And Biden, by hurting his own relationship with unions and workers, may have inadvertently made that sympathy even stronger.