The commander-in-chief said in a Monday evening statement that the possible work freeze, which could begin as soon as December 9, would “devastate” the economy ahead of the holiday season. “As a proud pro-labor President, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement,” he remarked. “But in this case — where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families — I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.”
The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division responded in a harsh statement noting that the organization “is deeply disappointed by and disagrees with” the sentiment expressed by Biden. “It is not enough to ‘share workers’ concerns.’ A call to Congress to act immediately to pass legislation that adopts tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave ignores the Railroad Workers’ concerns,” the group said. “It both denies Railroad Workers their right to strike while also denying them of the benefit they would likely otherwise obtain if they were not denied their right to strike.”
Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen President Michael Baldwin likewise affirmed in an interview with CNN Business that intervention from Congress “prevents us from reaching the end of our process” and “takes away the strength and ability that we have to force bargaining.” The Railway Labor Act, passed in 1926 as the nation became increasingly reliant upon railways, allows Congress to exercise its authority over interstate commerce by preventing rail strikes.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced that the lower chamber would vote on enforcing the tentative agreement this week, expressing similar reluctance as Biden to usurp standard union negotiations. “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,” she asserted in a statement, “but we must act to prevent a catastrophic nationwide rail strike, which would grind our economy to a halt.”
Biden ran for the Oval Office as an ally of labor unions, vowing in his 2020 campaign platform to ardently support 40-hour workweeks, paid leave, and health benefits. The tentative agreement greenlit by a majority of the nation’s rail unions guarantees a 24% pay raise and more robust health benefits, while denying paid sick leave.
The daily economic cost of a nationwide rail shutdown could amount to $2 billion, according to a report from the Association of American Railroads, while a letter from the Retail Industry Leaders Association addressed to Biden noted that freight rail accounts for 40% of long-distance shipping volume in the United States.
Even as labor unions decried efforts to shut down a potential strike, various business groups who had asked Congress to intervene expressed support for Biden’s statement. “The freight rail system is an integral part of America’s transportation system, moving cargo to communities in every corner of the country every day,” National Retail Federation CEO Matthew Shay said in a press release. “We are in peak holiday shopping season, and it is essential that retailers and other businesses are able to rely on these vital supply chain partners.”