An economic cataclysm was seemingly avoided last week when President Joe Biden intervened to broker a deal to avert what would have been a crippling national railroad strike but there remain obstacles that could lead to the scuttling of what he has boasted about as a major achievement.
On Thursday, rail workers will vote on the “tentative” deal that includes generous concessions such as a 24 percent pay hike, back pay and cash bonuses but, according to a report from The Hill, some trepidation exists, opening up the possibility that if any of the twelve railroad unions fail to ratify a new contract, that “nearly 125,000 rail workers could be headed for a strike.”
Among other concessions won by the unions are two-person crews, caps on health care costs, and allowing workers to take time off for medical appointments and scheduled events without being subject to penalties.
“But nearly 36 hours after the agreement was announced, rail workers said they still didn’t have concrete details on sick leave and voluntarily assigned days off. That’s raised some doubts about just how strong the new contract language is,” the outlet reported.
Railroad Workers United organizer Ron Kaminkow said that there’s “a lot of anger, confusion and hostility” toward the new agreement, which many workers feel is “intentionally vague.”
“Workers are pissed off and this time we actually have a lot of leverage,” a Norfolk Southern locomotive engineer said, asking that his name be kept anonymous due to fear of retaliation. “I know I’m not going to accept anything less than what we deserve.”
“The two largest rail unions warned during negotiations that their members wouldn’t approve a contract that doesn’t quell outrage over unpredictable scheduling, unsafe working conditions and a lack of sick leave,” according to The Hill.
One expert, Michael Lotito, co-chairman of the Workplace Policy Institute at Littler told the Wall Street Journal that, “this is a very, very contentious time.”
“I think that is going to embolden unions to ask for more,” he added.
A collapse of the deal would come at the worst time possible for Biden and his fellow Democrats who will face a public referendum on their disastrous policies in the rapidly approaching midterm elections, a railroad strike would likely collapse the carefully constructed narrative of a resurgent leader that has been pumped out by the media for the last two months.
The self-professed “train guy” tweeted “This is a win for the economy and for the American people,” after the tentative agreement was announced by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, following it up with an impromptu victory lap in the White House Rose Garden.
This is a win for the economy and for the American people.
Rail workers will get better pay, improved working conditions, and peace of mind around their health care costs.
I thank both the unions and rail companies for negotiating in good faith. https://t.co/9JNtLynsch
— President Biden (@POTUS) September 15, 2022
Biden, who throughout his five decades in Washington has been an outspoken advocate for unions discussed how he flew to the rescue to stave off the strike during his interview with CBS flagship “60 Minutes” on Sunday.
"If, in fact, they'd gone on a strike… We would've seen a real economic crisis."
President Joe Biden tells 60 Minutes what went into the deal that stopped a nationwide railroad strike. See the full interview, Sunday. https://t.co/l6qgPfYE2e pic.twitter.com/2tAVcqUrJG
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) September 16, 2022
Some are optimistic that a deal will be reached even with a “sizeable number of ‘no’ votes.”
“I would be surprised if the bargaining committee misread what the rank and file would support. That doesn’t mean that it will pass with supermajorities,” said Robert Bruno, a University of Illinois professor of labor and employment relations told The Hill. “That will signal a level of continuing grievance on the part of the membership. It wouldn’t surprise me if a fairly substantial number of members voted ‘no’ in part because of how genuinely abused they feel.”
He identified potential “sticking points” of sick leave and voluntarily assigned days off would draw resistance from workers.
“Usually, there’s a way to kind of figure out money,” Bruno said, according to The Hill. “It’s very often issues that go to respect and go to treatment, working autonomy, worker ability to have some control over their life. … I think it reflects just how much power employers can have, even under a collective bargaining agreement.”
Vote counting could drag on into next month with the prospect of an October surprise sprung by rail workers hanging over the heads of Democrats like a black cloud.
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