WASHINGTON — President Biden signed legislation Friday forcing railway unions to accept a labor agreement despite worker objections to a lack of paid sick days — hours before hobnobbing with visiting British royals.
Biden regularly calls himself the “most pro-union president” in history but asked Congress to intervene Monday, saying the US economy could not bear a railway shutdown.
The president will meet Friday afternoon in Boston with Prince William, the heir to the UK crown, and his wife Kate Middleton — creating awkward optics after the president also hosted billionaires and Hollywood stars Thursday night for a lux state dinner on the White House lawn.
“The bill I’m about to sign ends a difficult rail dispute and helps our nation avoid what without a doubt would have been an economic catastrophe at a very bad time on the calendar,” Biden said before inking his signature.
“A rail shutdown would have devastated our economy. Without freight rail, many of the US industries will literally shut down,” Biden said. “My economic advisors report that as many as 765,000 Americans … would have been put out of work … within the first two weeks of the strike.”
“Look, I know this bill doesn’t have paid sick leave that these rail workers and frankly every worker in America deserves. But that fight isn’t over,” the president said, almost apologetically.
The rail legislation easily cleared the House and Senate this week with bipartisan support, though members of both parties also said it was wrong for Biden to override attempts by unions for a better deal ahead of a Dec. 9 deadline.
Biden announced the controversial package in the White House Rose Garden in September after his deputies brokered it following all-night talks between railway management and representatives of 12 unions.
But members of four of those unions later voted to reject the bargain, citing a continued lack of sick days.
Some of the roughly 115,000 impacted rail workers trashed Biden for snuffing out their complaints.
“Joe Biden blew it,” Railroad Workers Union treasurer Hugh Sawyer said Monday. “He had the opportunity to prove his labor-friendly pedigree to millions of workers by simply asking Congress for legislation to end the threat of a national strike on terms more favorable to workers.”
Sawyer added of Biden: “Sadly, he could not bring himself to advocate for a lousy handful of sick days. The Democrats and Republicans are both pawns of big business and the corporations.”
The House of Representatives approved the bill Wednesday in a 290-137 vote, with all but eight mostly left-wing Democrats joining 79 GOP dissenters. The Senate passed it 80-15 on Thursday, with 10 Republicans, four Democrats and socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (i-Vt.) opposed.
The House passed a separate bill granting union workers seven days of paid sick leave each year, but that proposal flopped in the Senate due to the 60-vote threshold required for most bills.
Biden testily defended his actions to stomp out worker dissent when asked about legislation at a Thursday afternoon press conference with visiting French President Emmanuel Macron.
“Why didn’t you negotiate for [paid sick days] when you were helping to negotiate that contract that you now want Congress to impose?” asked NPR reporter Tamara Keith.
“I love you guys. I negotiated a contract no one else could negotiate,” Biden shot back. “The only thing that was left out was whether or not it was paid leave.”
The president proceeded to inflate some of the details in the pact — incorrectly claiming it would give workers a “43-45%” pay raise when in fact raises would be 24%, and claiming that “13 or 14” unions were involved with only four dissenters, when in fact it was 12.
The labor deal also gives workers $5,000 bonuses retroactive to 2020 — meaning the average employee could get an immediate payout of $11,000.
Workers would receive an additional day of paid leave per year as well as unpaid time off for doctor’s appointments and medical procedures, while employee health insurance premiums would be capped at 15% of the total plan cost.
Some Republican opponents of the legislation described the impasse as an opportunity to re-cast the Republican Party as the champion of workers, rather than long-time union-affiliated Democrats like Biden.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who aligns with former President Donald Trump’s economic populism, said Thursday, “Today the Senate had a chance to stand up for railroad workers who frequently risk their lives and health on the job, just trying to support their families. Instead, the Senate sided with Joe Biden.”
“Workers were asking for a handful of sick days per year. Biden and the Senate said no. I’d like to know how many of the White House staff, and how many members of Congress and their staff, are still ‘working remotely’ [due to COVID-19],” Hawley sniped.
“This was the White House and management and union bosses teaming up to use federal law to force workers to accept contracts they rejected in negotiations. And then people in DC wonder why working Americans think the system is rigged.”
In 1992, Biden was one of just six senators to vote against setting up an arbitration system to end a rail strike, which Congress is empowered to do by the federal Railway Labor Act of 1926. Biden argued in the past that such legislation unfairly undermines union collective bargaining efforts.
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