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 often calls himself The “most pro-union president”Congress asked for an intervention Monday to stop the US from closing down its railways.
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 spoke before he inked 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 spoke almost in apologetically.
Bipartisan support made it easy for the rail legislation to clear both the Senate House and Senate. Members of both parties however felt that Biden should not override union attempts for a better deal before the deadline of Dec. 9.
Biden, after his team brokered the agreement in late September in the White House Rose Garden following all-night negotiations between representatives from 12 unions and railway management.
However, four members of the unions were able to vote against it later. They cited a continuing lack of sick day.
Biden is being criticized for not listening to the nearly 115,000 affected rail workers.
“Joe Biden blew it,”Hugh Sawyer, treasurer Railroad Workers Union, 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 also mentioned 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. It was passed by the Senate 80-15. Ten Republicans, four Democrats, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (i.Vt.) were 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 stood by his decision to suppress worker dissent during a Thursday afternoon press conference where he was asked about legislation.
“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%”When in fact, the pay increase would be 24%. “13 or 14”Unions only had four members who were dissidents when it really 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 critics of the legislation described this impasse as an opportunity not to disparage long-time union members Democrats like Biden but rather to make the Republican Party the champion for workers.
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 had a snipe.
“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 claimed that the legislation would unfairly hamper union collective bargaining.
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