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What is Biden’s proposal to avert the national rail strike?

Speaker Pelosi will hold a vote that would mandate rail carriers provide paid sick leave, rejecting Biden’s plan to make no changes to the TA.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 21: A freight train engine (BOTTOM) and shipping containers are viewed in a Union Pacific Intermodal Terminal rail yard on November 21, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. A national rail strike could occur as soon as December 5 after the nation’s largest freight rail union, SMART Transportation Division, voted to reject the Biden administration’s contract deal. About 30 percent of the nation’s freight is moved by rail with the Association of American Railroads estimating that a nationwide shutdown could cause $2 billion a day in economic losses. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Mario TamaGetty

After workers of two of three of the country’s largest rail unions rejected the tentative agreement reached between union leaders and corporate bosses, the White House is urging Congress to intervene and stop a massive strike.

What did the agreement include?

Unions have been negotiating a new contract with five major rail companies, known as carriers, for three years, and after exhausting every option, workers earned the right to strike.

If Congress intervenes, it will strip all leverage from workers and hand an easy win to carriers. During negotiations, union leaders asked for fifteen days or fifty-six hours of paid sick leave a year, the same amount given to government contractors. The Tentative Agreement (TA) between union leaders and carriers included one additional paid personal leave day. These days, classified as “vacation days,” typically require the advanced approval of forty-eight hours, meaning that workers who try and use these days because they or a family member fall ill could be reprimanded for not giving advanced notice.

The BMWED, whose members voted down the TA, noted that the industry provides sick leave to their “office staff and corporate leadership” and that extending those benefits to workers on the railroad “would cost them $0.01 of every dollar of their record profits.

The TA does make one important change by protecting workers from “any form of disciplinary points, demerits or disciplinary citations under any Carrier’s attendance related policies,” for “absences relating to hospital admissions and surgeries will not result in.” A standard practice in most industries.

Rail employees must go to work if they get sick. Rail employees must have a stay-at-home spouse to take care of the kids who get sent home from school sick. Rail employees must never have an emergency. Because, if you’re not at work, we don’t have any back-up. You are Plan A, B, and C because we laid off all the reinforcements, but the railroads plan is for you to keep working and keep making them record profits.


The White House acknowledged the failure to secure paid sick leave for rail workers, with President Biden saying he shared the “concern about the inability to take leave to recover from illness or care for a sick family member.

One of the unions whose members voted down the agreement, the BMWED, fired back at the president, saying that to “share workers’ concerns” is not enough and that Congressional action would deny members “the benefit they would likely otherwise obtain if they were not denied their right to strike.” For union leaders, stopping a strike and limiting the power of rail workers is a stopgap measure that is likely to worsen rail service issues moving forward as workers are “further sicken, infuriate, and disenfranchise Railroad Workers as they continue shouldering the burdens of the railroads’ mismanagement.”

White House pushes Congress to act to avoid rail strike

In his ask to Congress, President Biden acknowledged that “some in Congress want to modify the deal to either improve it for labor or for management,” but that regardless of how “well-intentioned” these efforts are, “any changes would risk delay and a debilitating shutdown.” Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who has known Joe Biden for decades, shot back after the White House released its statement, arguing that if the president is “going to have Congress intervene in this rail strike, [he must] demand that railroad companies improve the deal and guarantee paid sick days for workers.”

Reich is not alone. Senator Bernie Sanders shares the opinion and has stated that if Congress is going to override the will of rail workers that, a bill that mandates carriers to provide at least seven paid sick days, given that outlawing a strike will place all the power with the companies.

Speaker Pelosi has said that the House of Representatives will vote on two bills on Wednesday, 30 November. The first will be a vote to avert a strike by imposing the Tentative Agreement on unions and carriers. The second is the proposal from Sen. Sanders.

On the Senate side, two Republicans, John Cornyn, believe that it could attract the GOP votes necessary to pass, with Senators Marco Rubio (FL), Josh Hawley (MO), and Ted Cruz (TX) indicating that they are likely to support the bill.

What would be the impact of a rail strike?

A national work stoppage on the railways would be catastrophic. Store shelves could empty, the animal feed could be delayed leading to shortages on farms that could disrupt food supply chains, and energy prices could spike as resources fail to meet their destination. With the inflationary pressure in the market the way it is, the White House is not wrong to be concerned by a possible strike, but forcing workers to accept an agreement they rejected democratically sends a message to workers around the country that their essential labor comes second to corporate profits.

Wages and benefits have not kept up with corporate profits

While many in the media will focus on how terrible the impacts would be for businesses and consumers, this framing blames workers rather than the companies who are refusing to provide paid sick leave to their workers will take in record profits. Blaming the striking workers removes the responsibility from the companies, who can end the dispute and avoid the fallout of a work stoppage but would rather the government intervene on their behalf.

One of the largest rail companies, BNSF Railway, owned by billion Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathway, has seen profits increase by 153 percent since 2016, while compensation and benefits for workers have only increased by twelve percent. Massive increases in profit margins have come at the expense of workers who have seen their sector estimated by layoffs and furloughs as their colleagues are deemed “redundant.”

How much have rail profits increased since 2016?

Companies 2016 Income (Jan - Sep) 2022 Income  (Jan - Sep) Increase 
BNSF $2.5 billion $6.5 billion +153% 
CSX $3.1 billion $1.2 billion +151%
Kansas City Southern $349 million $583 million +67%
Northern Southern $1.2 billion $2.4 billion +98%
Union Pacific  $3 billion $5.3 billion +73%

When securing profits is the main objective of a corporation, limiting the number of hours in a working day, week, or year is a threat to their bottom line.

With many companies operating with thousands fewer employees compared to staffing levels seen even five years ago, a worker calling in sick can mean that products and shipments are delayed.

Without reinforcements being hired, fifteen days of paid sick leave a year would impact the revenue of these companies, and they know it. So does Congress, as do the unions and the workers. The power to strike is not supposed to be a threat to the country, it is a reminder to the carriers of who creates value and of their dependence on their workers to reach the level of profits being seen across the industry.

The fact that a railroad strike could be so damaging to the US economy is not a new threat. The Railway Labor Act, which made work stoppages much harder in the industry, was passed in 1926 because leaders on Capitol Hill recognized that worker power could upend supply chains. The act made striking much harder, and the fact that nearly one hundred years later, Congress will intervene to strip workers of that right should be seen as a testament to the continued importance of these workers to keeping the country running and that their labor should not be taken for granted.