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Congress thwarts potential railroad strike before the holidays

As Americans for Fair Treatment previously reported, railroad unions threatened for weeks to go on strike before the holiday season. But congressional action this week forced an agreement between the railroads and four unions, preventing the possibility of a strike before it could begin.

President Joe Biden signed the bill into law last week, leaving some rail workers upset. For all their efforts, the railroad unions were only able to gain one additional paid sick day compared to their initial demands for fifteen sick days. Still, the new law included a salary increase of 24% over five years and a cap on healthcare costs.

Railroads are in a unique position because they are privately owned and operated, like many industries, but they are also under federal agency oversight. For this reason, the federal government intervened in the labor dispute to stop the strike, which would not usually occur in private industries.

Rail worker unions have publicly criticized Biden for his decision to call on Congress to intervene and stop the strike.

When asked whether Biden let the unions down, the president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen Michael Baldwin said, “Yes, to some extent.” Baldwin added, “This action prevents us from reaching the end of our process, takes away the strength and ability that we have to force bargaining or force the railroads to…do the right thing.”

Some union activists did not echo Baldwin’s statement, particularly Hugh Sawyer, treasurer for an activist caucus group Railroad Workers United, who said, “Joe Biden blew it. 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 continued, “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.”

Not all lawmakers supported how the Biden Administration or the unions handled the situation either. In a moment of bipartisanship, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Marco Rubio agreed that union workers should be able to dictate the terms of the deal, and their call for more paid sick days should not be ignored by union bosses.

Rubio wrote on social media, “The railways and workers should go back and negotiate a deal that the workers, not just the union bosses, will accept,” to which Ocasio-Cortez replied, “Glad we are on the same page [regarding] railworkers’ paid sick days.”

The unions made paid sick leave the central focus on the strike, but at least one railroad company pointed out how generous their sick leave policies are. BNSF told CNBC:

“Rail employees are provided with significant time off. Generally, train crew employees have over three to four weeks of paid vacation and over 10 personal leave days. Depending on craft and seniority, these numbers can extend to five weeks of vacation in addition to 14 paid holidays and/or paid leave days.”

The company concluded, “The number of Personal Leave Days was increased by 25% this year, which makes it easier for employees to take time off.”

Ultimately, railroad workers benefit from the new law because of the concessions from Congress and railroad companies. Railroad workers received a salary pay bump, were given one additional paid sick day, and their healthcare costs remained the same, which cannot be said for workers in other industries.

Spencer Irvine

Spencer Irvine is Senior Writer & Researcher at Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector employees offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Spencer previously worked in state government, in communications for a non-profit advocacy organization, and held various administrative and communications roles at a media analysis organization. He has a master’s degree in public administration from George Washington University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Brigham Young University. He lives in Arizona with his wife, is an avid history buff and enjoys touring historic sites.