President Joe Biden signed legislation Friday to block a nationwide US railroad strike that could have devastated the US economy as the country heads into the holiday season.
Biden said the bill “helps our nation avoid what would coolly without a doubt have been an economic catastrophe at a very bad time on the calendar.”
His move forces unions to accept a deal that four of them rejected because it didn’t include paid sick leave.
Biden admitted workers were entitled to it and said he would keep fighting for it.
“I know this bill doesn’t have paid sick leave on these railroad workers and frankly every worker in America deserves it, but that battle isn’t over,” he said.
He also tried to show the bright side, saying that the economy in general was moving in the “good direction,” which would be a boon to all Americans.
“Things are going, they are moving in the right direction as we head into the holiday season. Here’s what this all means. The Americans are at work. The economy is growing. Wages are rising faster than inflation,” he said.
President Joe Biden signs a bill that aims to prevent a freight rail strike, in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, accompanied from left, Celeste Drake, Made in America director in the Office of Management and Budget, director of the National Economic Council Brian Deese, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh
President Joe Biden said the bill “helps our nation avoid what would have been cool no doubt an economic catastrophe at a very bad time on the calendar.”
The legislation Biden signed into law imposes a preliminary contract agreement reached in September with a dozen unions representing 115,000 workers who could have gone on strike on Dec. 9.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg joined Biden at the signing. The two cabinet members worked through the Senate halls to garner enough support to get it passed.
The Senate passed the measure Thursday, but failed to include a provision that would provide for paid sick days for railroad workers — a major point of contention in union talks.
Eight of the twelve unions had ratified the deal. But the four who didn’t because of the lack of paid sick leave.
Unionists claim the railroads are rejecting paid sick leave in favor of higher profits. But the railroads say unions have negotiated over the decades to forego paid sick leave in favor of higher wages and strong short-term disability benefits.
But unions responded, at a time of record profits, the railroads can add paid sick leave. Several of the major railroad companies involved in the contract negotiations reported earnings of more than $1 billion in the third quarter. More paid sick leave would mean the railroads hiring more staff.
Some union leaders criticized Biden, who boasts about his friendship with unions, for supporting a measure without paid leave.
Biden got defensive on Thursday when asked about the matter.
‘I love you. I negotiated a contract that no one else could negotiate. The only thing that was left out was whether or not it was paid leave,” he said at a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron.
He pointed out that a majority of unions signed the deal, adding, “I will continue to fight for paid time off not just for railroad workers, but for all American workers.”
The Biden administration negotiated the deal and pushed lawmakers to approve it. Congress did, but many of Biden’s own Democrats struggled to support it, objecting to the administration’s intervention to override union talks.
“I know this was a tough vote for members of both parties, it was tough for me,” Biden said in his remarks on Friday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had responded to those concerns by adding a second vote on a measure that would add seven days of paid sick leave per year for railroad workers covered by the agreement. The House approved both proposals on Wednesday.
But the Senate rejected the sick leave in Thursday’s vote.
Most railway workers do not receive paid sick leave, but they do have short-term disability benefits that start after as little as four days and can replace part of their income for a year or more.
Railroad workers also get vacation and personal leave days, but workers say it’s difficult to use those for illnesses because they usually have to be approved far in advance.
Railroads move much of the freight across the United States
Railroads move much of the freight across the United States.
The strike could also have frozen nearly 30% of US freight shipments and left millions of passengers stranded.
The compromise deal that was supported by the railroad and a majority of unions provides for 24% increases and $5,000 in bonuses retroactive to 2020, along with one additional paid day off.
The raises would be the largest railroad workers have received in more than four decades.