The stalemate pits two of Biden’s top priorities against each other. The president has been an adamant defender of union workers but does not want a breakdown in the nation’s transportation infrastructure that would disrupt commuter and passenger services.
The administration has little time to act: The nationwide rail shutdown is set to go into effect on Friday, and labor and management have been at an impasse over difficult issues such as sick time and penalties for missing work.
The freight industry has warned that the first national rail strike in decades would shut down 30 percent of the country’s freight and “halt most passenger and commuter rail services.” The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, a division of the Teamsters, on Sunday announced a tentative agreement with national rail carriers, leaving only two of the 12 unions without a deal in place. But those are the two biggest rail unions in the country, representing 57,000 engineers and conductors.
Concerns about the political impact of a labor shutdown extend to parts of the administration as well. Farm groups have clamored for an agreement to be swiftly reached, as their operations could be heavily impacted. The administration has already faced criticism over its handling of the nation’s transportation infrastructure, which was wracked last year by supply chain snarls and this year by a spike in cancellations and delays at the nation’s airports. Some administration officials fear squandering the Biden economic victories of August that have helped increase Democrats’ poll numbers.
The Federal Railroad Administration, a part of the Transportation Department, has estimated that failure to reach an agreement could cost the U.S. economy as much as $2 billion per day in lost economic output. U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Suzanne P. Clark on Monday said a strike would be an “economic disaster” with “catastrophic economic impacts,” calling for urgent action to resolve the standoff.
“The last thing they want right now is a major strike in a key sector like this,” said Dean Baker, a White House ally and economist and co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think tank. “I think Biden is going to be pushing really hard to get a deal. He’ll presumably push on the employer side but I’m sure he’ll push the union side as well … though there’s a question of how hard he’ll be willing to push the workers.”
Still, the president has made supporting unions one of the top priorities throughout his administration. Many Biden aides are sympathetic to workers’ complaints of poor working conditions and unjust treatment by management, and are reluctant to lean too aggressively on labor leaders to end the strike.
At issue is the recommendation of the Presidential Emergency Board, which is run by three Biden appointees. The board outlined wage hikes and annual bonuses in a 124-page report that were between the demands of the union and management, and were generous enough to peel off 10 of the labor unions that represent a subset of railway workers who do not operate trains.
But the remaining two unions slated to strike are infuriated by the board’s lack of strong proposals related to certain working conditions that they say are “destroying the lives” of their members, such as facing penalties for taking any time off. Labor groups say engineers and conductors have been fired for going to routine doctor’s appointments or family members’ funerals, and can be on call for 14 consecutive days without a break, for up to 12 hours. They are also afforded no sick days.
“We’re facing the potential of a strike because the railroad refuses to grant one single day of sick time,” said Ron Kaminkow, a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, one of the unions that has not reached an agreement. “It’s about the phone rings at 2 a.m. to be at work at 4 a.m. after just 10 hours of rest prior. It’s about not knowing when you’re coming home and being penalized with discipline up to firing if you need to go to the doctor.”