By Siding Against Railworkers, Biden Is Breaking His Promise of Paid Sick Leave for All

Joe Biden is standing with railroad barons to force a deal on workers who are demanding a reasonable amount of paid sick leave. It’s the latest and possibly starkest example of the chasm between his pro-worker rhetoric during his campaign and his presidency.

Activists in support of unionized rail workers protest outside the US Capitol Building on November 29, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

As a labor dispute between railworkers and railroad companies barrels toward a nationwide rail strike, President Joe Biden is standing with railroad barons to force a deal on workers that not only falls far short of their demands, but also goes against Biden’s own promises to grant reasonable paid sick leave to all Americans.

The move is the latest and possibly starkest example of the chasm between Biden’s pro-worker rhetoric during his campaign and presidency, and the numerous pro-corporate actions he has taken in the White House.

As part of his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden pledged that he would ensure all workers have at least seven paid sick days. And early in his presidency, he called on Congress to pass a bill that would require companies to let all of their workers accrue at least seven days of paid sick leave per year.

“It’s a national disgrace that millions of our fellow citizens don’t have a single day of paid sick leave available to them,” Biden said in a March 2020 campaign speech.

But this September, Biden reversed course, helping negotiate a deal between railroad bosses and unions that would only grant workers a single paid sick day per year, despite the unions pushing for as many as fifteen sick days — a number they were ultimately willing to reduce to as few as four. Now, to avoid a shutdown of the nation’s rail network, he is asking Congress to force that deal on workers who voted to reject it.

With Democrats in full control of Congress for just a few more weeks, Biden could be using this moment to push lawmakers to pass the party’s landmark union rights legislation or implement a national paid leave policy. Instead, he is calling on Democrats and Republicans alike to side with highly profitable railroad companies and crush their workers.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has demanded that any back-to-work legislation include the unions’ paid sick leave demands and pledged Tuesday that he will slow down the Senate’s process unless lawmakers pass an amendment of his guaranteeing five to seven paid sick days. Sanders is reportedly working with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) on the proposal. Even the conservative Democratic Senator John Hickenlooper of Colorado demanded Tuesday that any legislation include at least seven days of paid sick leave.

That contention was echoed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who tweeted Tuesday, “Railroad workers grind themselves to the bone for this country as their labor produces billions for Wall St. They demand the basic dignity of paid sick days. I stand with them. If Congress intervenes, it should be to have workers’ backs and secure their demands in legislation.”

House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced Tuesday evening that the House will vote Wednesday on the Biden-negotiated deal as well as a separate proposal to add seven days of paid sick leave to the agreement.

Sanders said in an MSNBC interview Tuesday that Senate minority whip John Cornyn (R-TX) indicated in the GOP caucus meeting Tuesday there may be significant Republican support for his paid sick day amendment, after Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) tweeted, “I will not vote to impose a deal that doesn’t have the support of the rail workers.”

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), for his part, said Tuesday that workers’ demands for paid sick leave are “quite reasonable.”

Most “Pro-Union President”?

While much of the corporate media’s coverage of the looming rail strike has focused on how the work stoppage would make a slowing economy worse and cause havoc over the holidays, far less attention has been paid to the circumstances that led the nation’s railworkers to consider such an extreme move.

Railworkers are somewhat unique in that they aren’t protected by the National Labor Relations Act, which protects workers’ right to strike at any time if their contract is expired. Instead, they are covered by the Railway Labor Act (RLA), an earlier law that requires workers to navigate a convoluted process before they are allowed to strike.

Railworkers, claiming deteriorating working conditions, have been negotiating a new contract with railroad companies for three years. A key sticking point has been the matter of paid sick leave — because currently, workers don’t get any.

Railroad companies have been slashing their workforces for years, leaving workers on call for days and weeks on end with zero days of paid sick leave. Workers say that two of the largest railroad companies, Union Pacific and BNSF, have implemented onerous attendance policies that make it impossible for workers to go to the doctor or help with family emergencies. These policies have led to mass resignations, making the jobs even harder for workers who remain.

As contract negotiations ground to a halt this summer, Biden convened an emergency board in July to make recommendations to the railroad bosses and union negotiators on a path forward.

But when Biden’s board came up with a tentative agreement in September, it didn’t even come close to meeting the workers’ paid sick leave demands — only including a single day of paid sick leave.

Meanwhile, the railroad companies don’t believe workers who make the industry run deserve any credit for their profitability, according to Biden’s emergency board.

“The carriers maintain that capital investment and risk are the reasons for their profits, not any contributions by labor,” the board wrote in its August report. “The carriers further argue that there is no correlation historically between high profits and higher compensation, either in the freight rail industry or more generally.”

Last week, the country’s largest rail union — the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers’ Transportation Division, representing twenty-eight thousand railroad workers — voted to reject the proposed agreement. This followed “no” votes on the deal from the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees-Teamsters, and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers — unions that together represent nearly sixty thousand of the hundred thousand union railworkers who could go on strike if no agreement is reached.

On Monday, Biden called on Congress to impose the agreement legislatively, overriding railworkers and bipartisan critics of the deal for the sake of the nation’s economy.

“As a proud pro-labor president, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement,” Biden said in a statement. “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.”

This demand is in stark contradistinction to Biden’s response to Congress’ actions in 1992 that forced railroad workers back to work under similar circumstances.

In 1992, US railworkers went on strike for just two days before Congress intervened and passed a back-to-work bill, ending the stoppage. Biden was one of just six senators to vote against the legislation, saying, “We need to restore a measure of balance to these negotiations. . . . I am not convinced that we should act to reward the actions of the railroad companies at this time.”

Now, Biden’s efforts to crush the potential rail strike may not just prevent workers from winning their most basic demands or strip him of his claim to be the most pro-union president in American history.

The move will also indicate to other industries covered by the RLA, such as the airlines and the nonunion shipping behemoth FedEx, that they don’t have to negotiate with their workers in good faith, because the president will step in at the last minute to protect them.

Build Families Back Better?

Biden is asking Democrats to use their precious final weeks with a governing trifecta to crush railworkers’ efforts to win paid sick leave, rather than passing their own proposals to extend paid sick leave and other protections to US workers.

After Biden issued his statement Monday calling on Congress to pass legislation imposing the tentative agreement, Democratic leadership quickly fell in line. Pelosi said Tuesday that the House would vote this week on such legislation, and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) vowed to work with Republicans to pass it swiftly in the Senate.

That kind of urgency has otherwise been lacking in the waning days of Democrats’ control of Congress, as the window closes to pass more of Biden’s promised agenda.

Schumer has not held a vote on the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, legislation that would make it far easier for workers to form unions — even though forty-eight of the fifty members of the Senate Democratic caucus have publicly supported the measure. House Democrats passed the bill in March last year.

As Politico reported this week, Schumer has also repeatedly sidelined legislation that would extend more job protections to pregnant workers, and if the Senate fails to vote on it before Republicans gain control of the House next year, the popular bill likely won’t be enacted in the near future.

Meanwhile, another bill that would mandate at least seven annual paid sick days at workplaces with fifteen or more employees, reintroduced in April 2021, remains stuck in committees in both the House and the Senate. The so-called Healthy Families Act has been introduced ten times since 2004, but has never made it to the floor for a vote.

Biden proposed including the Healthy Families Act in Democrats’ social spending and climate package, known as Build Back Better, but the legislation failed under the weight of opposition from Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV).

The version of Build Back Better that passed the House last fall included four weeks of paid sick and family leave, but never got a vote in the Senate, thanks to Manchin’s opposition.

While seventeen states now mandate paid sick leave, thirty-three million American workers remain without such protections. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, 82 percent of voters support a national paid sick days policy.

The lack of a federal policy currently prevents railroad workers even from enjoying state-mandated benefits. In a precedent-setting July ruling, a California appeals court found that federal law governing railroad workers preempted the state’s 2014 paid sick leave law, after six railroad companies sued the California labor commissioner to avoid extending new benefits.

In a statement responding to Biden’s actions on Monday, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters said it was “deeply disappointed.” The Brotherhood, the nation’s third-largest railroad worker union, called on “President Biden and any member of Congress that truly supports the working class to act swiftly by passing any sort of reforms and regulations that will provide paid sick leave for all railroad workers.”