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‘Pro-union’ president risks key constituency support to avoid railway strike

Earlier this week, Joe Biden gave a speech in Michigan and described himself as an unabashed champion of organized labor, a “pro-union” president through and through.

Now Biden is facing a backlash from a core of railroad workers and allied groups as some see betrayal in the bill he pushed to avert a railroad strike. .

He signed the measure, which passed with bipartisan support, at the White House on Friday, giving railroad workers a significant raise but denying them paid sick leave that had been a sticking point in some of the contract negotiations. . Hours later, he arrived at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston and was greeted by dozens of protesters objecting to his handling of a labor dispute that threatened to shut down rail service at the height of the holiday season.

Biden may be willing to tolerate the anger in hopes it will die down before he has to face voters again. And that may be better for him than the alternative – an economic calamity that could have enraged voters across the country and worsened inflation.

Supporters argue that Biden’s decisive action can be a net positive, proof that he’s willing to do what’s best for the nation, even if it upsets some key constituency members.

The standoff between railroad workers and the profitable companies that employ them posed a tricky dilemma for Biden, forcing him to find elusive middle ground between dueling campaign pledges.

He promised to be a friend of a labor movement that he said created America’s middle class. But he also pledged to build on post-pandemic economic recovery and seek bipartisan compromise. A railroad strike has threatened to unravel the jobs gains that will undoubtedly be at the heart of any Biden re-election campaign.

“If Joe Biden wants to be the most pro-Labour president, or wants to see himself as a Labor supporter, he has to stand with Labor through thick and thin, when it’s hard and when it’s not. “said Tony Cardwell, president of BMWED, one of four unions that voted against the agreement with the railways (eight others voted for the contract). “We’re asking for something most Americans have.”

During the bill signing ceremony, Biden looked torn. He said he’s not giving up paid sick leave for railroad workers and other Americans who don’t receive such benefits. But he said he was not ready to see freight trains stopped and food, water, clothes and holiday gifts stuck in empty depots. Lawmakers faced a tough vote, he said, adding it was “a tough vote [vote] for me. But it was the right thing to do right now to save jobs. …”

Still, the president could have used more leverage to secure a deal that included paid sick leave, say union officials and their allies.

“I am disappointed that he [Biden] wielded power against workers,” said Erin Hatton, a sociology professor at the University at Buffalo who specializes in labor markets. “He pitted workers against the economy. But the workers are the economy.

“Biden has run on a pro-worker platform from the start and that, in my view, precludes him from doing so in the future,” she said.

Other unions fear the rail dispute could further weaken the national labor movement or undermine its recent momentum, potentially giving the industry new avenues to win future concessions.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, which also bargains under the same labor laws as railway workers, said the decision to preempt the strike could also hamper her workers, many of whom are in the bargaining process. with major airlines.

“This was a direct attack on the right to strike of the people I represent,” she said. “The message they send is that they side with the bosses, whether they like it or not. Fair collective bargaining includes the right to strike, so everyone has something to lose.

White House economics chief Celeste Drake defended the decision to avoid the strike.

“President Biden has used the full weight of his administration to support members of the railroad unions in their work to negotiate improvements in wages, benefits and working conditions in a deal that won the support of ‘a majority of railway unions,’ she said. He is proud of his record as a pro-union president and will continue to fight to deliver paid sick leave, workplace dignity and other victories for American workers.

Pragmatically minded Democrats and other union supporters said Biden had demonstrated one important quality throughout the railroad saga: flexibility. He campaigned to unify the country and find bipartisan solutions – which is especially difficult to do given that most legislation needs a 60-vote supermajority to pass the Senate, which means at least 10 Republicans must join the Democrats.

“What the American people saw the president make was make an extremely difficult choice that he knew was going to upset a group of supporters, and one of the groups he cares about most personally, because he thought that it was the right thing to do, and the right thing to do for our economy,” said Seth Harris, Biden’s former senior labor adviser.

Cleveland bandleader Dan Banks, 43, a member of one of the unions that rejected the deal, said he had hoped for paid sick leave but did not blame Biden for the setback .

He believed the president had pushed for a resolution on the understanding that railroad workers would have faced a worse outcome had negotiations dragged on into January, with Republicans expected to take power in the House in 2023.

“Biden made sure we got what was available to us,” he said.

Biden has struggled to fulfill his vow to be the most pro-worker president in memory, drawing early applause from labor activists and economists who are calling for a stronger role for unions. He made waves by posting a video early in his presidency supporting Amazon workers organizing in Alabama and warning the company of union-busting activities. And he installed a set of largely pro-worker voices in key positions in the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board.

But some of the more ambitious parts of his agenda, such as passing the Pro Act to update the country’s outdated labor laws and expanding paid vacations, have exploded in a Congress tightly divided with its own set. mystery of voting rules.

Those tensions have come to a head as rail negotiations have soured over the past six months. A Senate bill that would have guaranteed workers seven days of paid sick leave received 52 votes on Thursday, falling short of the 60-vote threshold needed for passage.

From the start of talks between the White House and the railroad unions in the contract dispute, there were concerns about how at least 10 Republicans could be persuaded to back a labor-friendly deal if negotiations failed, a nobody aware of nearly a year- long discussions said.

“If they couldn’t get a deal with the railroads, how would the unions get to 60 on a deal in Congress?” the person said. “That’s where they ended up and they couldn’t. None of this came as a surprise to anyone involved in the process.

Yet some have seen the White House siding with industry leaders – who had warned of the economic consequences of a strike for months – on the workers on the rails.

“The president was in a tough place, trying to maintain safe supply chains and getting people their Christmas gifts,” said Faiz Shakir, adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, “but what workers have felt over the past few decades is that they’re always getting the tree.

nbcnews Gt

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