By Aneri Upadhyay
President Joe Biden passed a bill on Dec. 2 to block rail strikes after businesses and retailers rushed to prepare for an expected freight rail strike of 100,000 union members. The effects of this strike would have been monumental, from price increases to fuel shortages. Congress was attempting to prevent this strike before it was too late.
This strike is a product of Biden’s involvement in stopping a previous strike that was supposed to take place in September. Workers were fighting for more accessibility in getting time off for sick leave, according to NPR. They work under a “points-based attendance policy” and therefore would lose points or face penalty if they did not come in for work, with the only way to earn more points being working more hours.
The previous strike was averted by a statement from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. According to CNN, the statement gave workers “time off for certain medical events from carrier attendance policies.” They also received another paid day off and voluntary assigned days off, as well as bonuses and raises for five-year life contracts.
Biden saw this labor deal as a success. However, four of the 12 unions voted no on this agreement, leading to the current impending strike, as reported by The New York Times.
The reason for the refusal is due to the issue of scheduling of shifts for freight workers: They are required to be on call everyday, even if they are not working. This conflict combined with the sick leave difficulties and shortage of workers were what the union workers wanted to address — and exactly what the agreements did not try to address. These issues were increasingly evident throughout the recent pandemic, when workers were unable to get paid time off if themself or someone in their family was sick.
As reported by CNN, Jeremey Ferguson, president of the transportation division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail Transportation union, stated, “Some of this vote, I think, wasn’t necessarily a referendum vote against the contract as much as it was against their employers.”
According to the Guardian, the House of Representatives passed a bill on Nov.30 to stop the strike, along with another provision, providing seven days of paid sick leave to union workers. This bill, however, was passed in the Senate without the provision.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke on the conditions of railroad workers before the bill was passed, stating that, “No one should be at risk of losing his or her job by staying home when sick, needing to see a doctor or getting life saving surgery.”
The effects of this strike would have been monumental. It could have frozen about 30% of the United States’ cargo, along with increasing inflation and adding to job losses.
Biden had already been preparing for an impending strike, stating that “without the certainty of a final vote to avoid a shutdown this week, railroads will begin to halt the movement of critical materials like chemicals to clean our drinking water as soon as this weekend.”
Biden signed the rail agreement bill immediately, as reported by ABC, even though this agreement did not include paid sick leave, which was the very issue union workers are fighting against. He was focusing on the potential strike first as he believed that was more important to fix currently than the sick leave crisis.
According to Biden, if the railroads shut down, it was “going to immediately cost 750,000 jobs and cause a recession.”
AP News also reports that the strike could have cost the United States’ economy $2 billion a day.
The bill Biden signed stopped the planned rail strike from occurring, according to CNBC.
Biden, however, is still insistent on fighting for workers’ rights, stating, “I supported paid sick leave for a long time, and I’m going to continue that fight until we succeed.”