“The 360” shows you various perspectives on the major stories and debates of the day.
What is happening
Congress moved quickly this week to pass legislation that will prevent a nationwide strike by railroad workers, just days after President Biden warned that a work stoppage would “devastate our economy.”
The threat of a railway strike, which experts say would have had major negative effects on the wider economy, has loomed for months as workers and railway companies failed to reach to an agreement that would satisfy the unions’ demands for better wages and more flexible working hours.
The risk appears to have been averted in September, when the Biden administration helped broker a deal that includes a 24% pay raise. But workers in four of the country’s 12 railroad unions rejected that compromise in the vote, largely because it didn’t include any paid sick leave. The failure of those votes prompted Biden to call on Congress to intervene.
In most industries, Congress does not have the power to force an end to labor disputes. But a 1926 law called the Railway Labor Act gives lawmakers the unique power to force a resolution to disagreements involving railway workers. A bill that will force railroad workers to accept the terms of the original agreement passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday and the Senate the next day. A separate bill that would have added seven days of sick leave to the original deal was approved in the House but died in the Senate, after failing to pass the 60-vote threshold required to pass most legislation in bedroom.
Why there is debate
The dispute had put Biden, who has pledged to be the ‘most pro-union president’ in US history, in a bind: having to choose between supporting workers and potentially risking a blow to the economy.
Many Democratic lawmakers echoed Biden’s sentiment that, however reluctant they were to force a deal against the will of workers, the harm a strike would cause meant they had no choice but to ‘to intervene. Conservative commentators generally applaud any measure that weakens the power of unions, but some have accused Biden of hypocrisy for acting on this matter, after backing organized labor in other situations when it benefits him politically.
The president has come under fire from rail unions, who have accused him of siding with ‘robber baron railroads’ to force through a deal that will ‘further sicken, infuriate and deprive’ railway workers. A number of progressive Democrats, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, DN.Y., had called on Congress to pass legislation that satisfies workers’ sick leave demands. In the end, however, all decided not to delay progress on the basic sick leave agreement.
Some leftist critics say Biden and Democrats have betrayed their promises to the labor movement by undermining the ability of railroad workers to leverage their worth for better working conditions. Others say Biden should have stepped in to force a deal on union terms, rather than side with highly profitable railroads that refuse to provide their workers with basic quality of life improvements.
In intervening to stop a strike, Biden chose the best of a series of bad options
“Biden would certainly have appreciated an agreement that would satisfy the persistent demands of the unions. But with economic concerns still weighing on Americans, the president was unwilling to let a strike happen. — Joey Garrison, USA Today
Biden was right to step in, but he backed the wrong side
“Mr. Biden has good reason to fear that a strike could cause significant economic disruption and add to inflationary pressures. But the president has chosen the wrong side of the fight. He should pressure businesses to do concessions.—Binyamin Appelbaum, New York Times
There is nothing wrong with enforcing an agreement that benefits both parties to the dispute
“Passing the Walsh-Biden deal, which Biden called on Congress to do, in no way precludes unions from continuing to negotiate for more sick leave at the local level. The Walsh-Biden deal is a fair deal, reached through proper procedures, and one that the railroads and the majority of unions have accepted. — Editorial, national magazine
Democrats let the railroads off the hook for their exploitation of workers
“We can use a number of frameworks to understand this story. “The clock is ticking towards the crisis!” is a. “Two parties can’t get along” is another. “Weary workers demand basic human dignity from rapacious oligarchs” would be another. Could the latter be so inaccurate? —Paul Waldman, Washington Post
Biden was ultimately forced to put the needs of ordinary Americans ahead of his labor allies
“A congressional resolution preventing a strike would force Biden, who has already decided he’s doing everything right as president, to show who he really works for. Does it work for you and your family? Or is he working for a pampered modern labor movement that doesn’t hesitate to hold the country hostage for extra leverage in its contract negotiations? — Editorial, Washington Examiner
Democrats should have only passed a plan that meets workers’ demands
“Congress needs to do more to make sure railroad workers’ demands are met before telling them to go back to work. After all, these demands are not unreasonable. — Editorial, Philadelphia Inquirer
Biden weakened the entire labor movement
“Rail companies have cut jobs in order to spend less on wages and increase profits while forcing understaffed train workers to accept punitive conditions, longer hours and little time off. By opting for the strong arm of the railroad unions, Biden is doing everything possible to ensure that this exploitative dynamic continues. It also signals to corporate interests in other sectors that its own pro-worker beliefs do not extend to supporting workers once they actually threaten to create inconvenience or disruption – which is, of course, their only real source of leverage. — Luke Savage, Jacobean
Democrats will only resist out-of-control unions when they risk suffering politically
“A disruptive rail strike would be as bad for the economy as school closures have been for children. But this time, Biden fears his party is paying a political price. Think about that hypocrisy the next time the president tries to meddle with private industries like Amazon and Starbucks. Or when your children are educated by a bad union-protected teacher. Biden and the Democrats don’t care who suffers — as long as it’s not them. —James Bovard, New York Post
Congress must update outdated labor laws to avoid these situations in the future
“We need to have a more in-depth discussion about these types of jobs and how we resolve these types of disputes. … Nobody ever seems to want to update some of those clunky old mechanics we have for things. And it’s probably long overdue. —Kimberley Strassel, Wall Street Journal
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Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images, Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images (3)
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