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Rail Strike Threat Ends With Biden’s Signature

The threat of a national rail strike is officially over after President Biden on Friday signed a law forcing workers to accept tentative agreements rejected by four unions. 

The bill, which quickly passed through both chambers of Congress this week, puts an end to a nearly three-year collective bargaining process that has seen employers and workers deadlocked a number of times. It also helps the country avoid what Biden called “a real disaster” in a nationwide shutdown of the country’s rail, with the President saying lawmakers ultimately “ended up with a good product” that offered a historic wage increase and better working conditions. 

The deal, which was rejected by four of the dozen unions involved in the recent round of contract negotiations, is based off recommendations made by the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) Biden established in the summer to help the two sides work out their differences. Working conditions and paid sick time remained sticking points for the workers that rejected the tentative deals before them.

The President aimed to address those worker concerns in his remarks Friday.

“But we still have more work to do in my view in terms of ultimately getting paid sick leave, not just for rail workers, but for every worker in America,” Biden said Friday. “That is a goal I had in the beginning and I’m coming back at it.”  

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House lawmakers on Wednesday passed the bill for the tentative agreement, along with a separate resolution offering workers seven days of paid sick leave. The following day Senators passed the resolution on the tentative agreement, but were unable to reach a supermajority on amendments that would have offered 60 more days to continue negotiations and the enact the sick leave provision. 

Retail and other business trade groups applauded the bill’s quick passage as they looked to avoid a supply chain disruption with wide-reaching effects. 

A strike, which could have occurred as early as Dec. 9, was estimated to cost more than $2 billion a day, with about 765,000 workers expected to have been put out of jobs in the first two weeks of a work stoppage. 

American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) president and CEO Steve Lamar applauded Biden signing the resolution, while also pointing to the other labor consideration and potential headwind to retailers’ supply chains in the West Coast dockworker contract negotiations. 

“Supply chains are no place for brinkmanship,” Lamar told Sourcing Journal Friday. “Signing H.J.Res.100 [the joint resolution on the tentative agreement] was 100 percent the right thing to do for the U.S. economy. Next up, we need to make sure the West Coast ports labor talks quickly come to a resolution so we can ensure our economic stability and growth in the years to come.” 

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), the group representing West Coast dockworkers has been in extended contract talks with employers’ group, the Pacific Maritime Association. Workers have been without a contract since July 1 as the two sides continue negotiations. 

The ILWU voiced strong criticism over passage of the rail bill. 

“Congress talks about ‘saving democracy’ at the ballot box, but they just totally undermined workplace democracy by imposing a contract that workers voted to reject,” ILWU International president Willie Adams said late Thursday in response to the Senate vote. “It is wrong to impose a rejected contract, period. Congress had the option to allow more time for the railroad workers to negotiate better benefits with their highly profitable employers, and they had the option to add paid sick days. There’s no excuse for taking away workers’ collective bargaining rights. Congress failed America’s workers today.” 

Railroad Workers United (RWU) voiced its dismay over the outcome Friday. The group is comprised of railroad workers and is not affiliated with any one union or craft. 

“This one-two punch from the two political parties is despicable,” RWU general secretary Jason Doering said. “Politicians are happy to voice platitudes and heap praise upon us for our heroism throughout the pandemic, the essential nature of our work, the difficult and dangerous and demanding conditions of our jobs. Yet, when the steel hits the rail, they back the powerful and wealthy Class 1 rail carriers every time.” 

RWU, following the signing of the tentative agreements between union leaders and employers in September, called for informational picket lines to push forward issues related to safer working conditions, paid sick time off, healthcare costs and wages in line with inflation. 

The group, after Friday’s signing of the resolution into law, further underscored the need to move away from craft-specific unions and instead form a single railroad workers union “that can win in future rounds of contract bargaining.”