By Noam Scheiber
As the legislative representative for his local union, Gabe Christenson, a longtime freight railroad conductor, worked hard to help elect Joe Biden president in 2020.
“I have shirts from me campaigning — blue-collar Biden shirts,” he said. “I knocked on doors for him for weeks and weeks.”
But since Monday, when President Joe Biden urged Congress to impose a labor agreement that his union had voted down, Christenson has been besieged by texts from furious co-workers whom he had encouraged to support the president.
“I’m trying to calm them down,” he said.
Biden said he was urging action to avoid a nationwide strike that would threaten hundreds of thousands of jobs and that the industry estimates would cost the economy more than $2 billion per day. The House of Representatives took the first step Wednesday toward carrying out his request, approving the plan on a vote of 290-137.
A White House statement earlier this week said the president was “reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement” but that he felt congressional action was urgent.
For many of the more than 100,000 freight rail workers whose unions have been negotiating a new labor contract since 2020, however, Biden’s intervention amounted to putting a thumb on the scale in favor of the industry.
They say the rail carriers have enormous market power to set wages and working conditions, power that is enhanced by a federal law that greatly restricts the workers’ right to strike compared with most private-sector employees. They complain that after waiting patiently through multiple procedural steps, including a presidential emergency board, they had a narrow window to improve their contract through a labor stoppage and that Biden has effectively closed that window.
“They should let the guys work it out for themselves,” said Rhonda Ewing, a signal maintainer in Chicago. “We know it’s holiday time, which is why it’s the perfect time to raise our voices. If Biden gets involved, he takes away our leverage.”
A narrower House vote on Wednesday, 221-207, authorized seven paid sick days for the workers, addressing a key demand. But it is unclear whether that provision can win Senate approval.
The agreement that Biden asked Congress to impose was brokered between union leaders and industry negotiators with help from his administration and announced in September, averting a potential strike before the midterm elections. The accord would raise pay nearly 25% between 2020, when the last contract expired, and 2024, and allow employees to miss work for routine medical appointments three times per year without risking disciplinary action. It would also grant them one additional day of paid personal leave.
It would not provide paid sick leave, however, which many workers argue is the bare minimum they can accept given their grueling work schedules, which often leave them on the road or on call for long stretches of time. Rail carriers say workers can attend to illnesses or medical appointments using paid vacation.
Four of the 12 unions that would be covered by the agreement voted it down, and several others approved it only narrowly.
Tony Cardwell, the president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division — International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which voted down the agreement Biden has asked Congress to impose, said that simply asking Congress to include paid sick days in the agreement would have gone a long way toward satisfying his members. The proposal to do so in the House was initiated by progressive lawmakers.
“If he would have said, ‘I want this one thing,’ it would have changed the whole narrative,” Cardwell, whose union represents more than 20,000 workers affected by the contract, said in an interview Wednesday.
The sense of betrayal is especially acute because Biden has long portrayed himself as friendly to organized labor, and many union leaders regard him as the most labor-friendly president of their lifetimes thanks to his appointments and his support for regulations and legislation that they favor.
Daniel Kindlon, an electrician who works at a rail yard near Albany, New York, and is the head of his local union, said that while he is not a huge supporter of the president, he was impressed when Biden spoke at the electrician union’s convention in Chicago this spring.
“It was the best 45 minutes I’ve heard him talk,” Kindlon said.
Yet he said he struggled to understand why Biden couldn’t have pushed Congress to go further.
“You would think he would just try to get them to throw in a couple days of sick time; that’s really all the guys were asking for,” he said.
Several union members and local officials said they had urged co-workers who had previously supported Donald Trump to back Biden, arguing that he would be friendlier to labor. They said that these co-workers had reached out to complain about what they saw as Biden’s about-face since Monday, although it was unclear how many of these union members had voted for the current president.
Many union members have long suspected that Congress would intervene to prevent them from striking. Kindlon said several members of his local union abstained from voting on the tentative contract this fall because they didn’t believe their vote mattered. Many took the view that “this is going to get jammed down our throat anyways; why do I care?” he said.
Many who placed their hopes in Biden assumed that they would not be allowed to strike for very long but reasoned that even a brief strike lasting several hours, or the mere threat of one, would have been sufficient to extract more concessions from the rail carriers.
“I mean, that would have looked way better,” said Christenson, the longtime conductor. “Even if he had ulterior motives, let us have our day. He could show he was with us.”
Cardwell, of the maintenance workers union, said that “the fact that he did it so early” was surprising, given that there was still roughly a week or more to potentially extract concessions before a strike would have occurred.
Across the labor movement, prominent leaders have so far been silent or restrained in their response to Biden’s call for congressional action.
But at least one — Sean O’Brien, the president of the Teamsters, which represents more than 1 million members — has hinted at criticism.
“Members of Congress have an opportunity to fight for their constituents by making sure rail workers get paid sick days,” O’Brien wrote Tuesday on Twitter. “Any politicians who don’t side with workers need to go on the record that they voted against workers.”
The same day, a group of more than 100 labor scholars circulated an open letter to Biden expressing alarm at his call for Congress to impose the agreement that some unions have voted down, and suggesting that the intervention could affect the labor movement for decades.
“History shows us that the special legal treatment of rail and other transportation strikes offers the federal government — and the executive branch in particular — a rare opportunity to directly shape the outcome of collective bargaining, for good or for ill,” the letter said. It added: “These dramatic interventions can set the tone for entire eras of subsequent history.”