President Joe Biden pushed through a bill in December forcing a contract on exhausted rail workers, who were willing to strike in order to force employers to give engineers and other employees sick time, leaving some wondering if the unions will line up to support Democratic challenger Marianne Williamson.
After three years of failed negotiations, Biden signed into law a measure that imposed the contract agreement his administration brokered in September, a deal that gives workers a 24 percent raise over five years, caps on health care premiums, and one additional personal day, but no paid sick days.
Biden has come under fire from labor union leaders and members after denying railroad workers sick time off they were willing to strike for. The move has been called a betrayal by those who say Biden promised to stand up for workers’ rights during his campaign.
Williamson is a best-selling author whose progressive policies are more closely aligned with labor unions than the current White House agenda, which appears to be highly influenced by corporate donors and American billionaire oligarchs.
The sick time dispute began when the rail industry proposed a new contract that would require workers to wait 14 days before receiving sick pay. The proposal was met with resistance from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents thousands of railroad workers.
In response to the dispute, the union called for a strike, which would have disrupted rail service across the country. But the Biden administration intervened, denying the workers the sick time off they were seeking and effectively ending the threat of a strike.
Four of the 12 freight rail unions, collectively representing more than half of the 115,000 freight rail workers covered by the deal, had voted down the agreement, citing the lack of paid sick days as a primary reason.
Workers who voted no say they are frustrated and disappointed — especially with Biden, who signed legislation to impose the agreement without modifications in order to avoid a crippling rail strike.
Union leaders and members have expressed frustration and disappointment with the decision, with many saying that Biden has turned his back on the labor movement. “We are extremely disappointed that the Biden administration would deny these hardworking men and women the sick time they need and deserve,” said Robert Martinez Jr., president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
Other labor leaders echoed Martinez’s sentiments. “It’s a betrayal of the working class and a slap in the face to union workers who have fought tirelessly for their rights,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, in a tweet.
Some union members have also taken to social media to express their frustration with the decision. “Biden promised to be a champion for workers, but now he’s denying us the basic right to sick time off,” wrote one Twitter user.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Matthew Weaver, a railroad carpenter since 1994. “Here is America’s essential workers — rail workers. We have no paid sick days. It’s disgusting.”
“It feels like President Biden ushered this in a little too early,” said Weaver. “He kind of cut us off at the knees on our ability to have some real negotiations or real change after voting no.”
In Richmond, Virginia, roadway mechanic Reece Murtagh said it sets a bad precedent when someone who pretends to be the most pro-labor of presidents will force an agreement rather than allow workers to strike.
“In future negotiations, the carriers are going to remember that and use it against us,” said Murtagh. “It’s going to be even harder for us to negotiate a fair contract because they realize when it comes down to it, there’s not going to be a strike.”
Murtagh said guys in his shop felt especially disillusioned thinking back on Biden’s decades in the Senate, when he’d take Amtrak home to Delaware every night.
“Joe relied on us to get him home to his family,” said Murtagh. “But when it was his turn to help us out… to better our life, he turned his back on us.”
The decision has also drawn criticism from progressive politicians and advocacy groups. “This is not the type of leadership we need from the Biden administration. Workers deserve better than this,” said Senator Bernie Sanders in a statement.
The sick time dispute and the Biden administration’s response to it highlight the ongoing tensions between the labor movement and the government. As workers continue to fight for their rights and protections, it remains to be seen how the administration will respond to future labor disputes.
For her part, Wiliamson says the country must return to the pro-worker policies that lifted Americans out of the Great Depression, through the struggles of World War II and through the greatest expansion of the middle-class in history. Biden may have turned his back on workers and made only token moves to revive government modeled on the New Deal and Great Society, but Williamson seems to embrace the ‘party of the people’ mantra.
“Today’s Labor movement is an exciting expression of resistance to overreach by unfettered corporate forces. As president, I will not just protect workers, I will empower them,” said Williamson. “My father was a labor organizer with the CIO. He was part of the UAW’s campaign to organize Ford Plants in 1937, where men and women were brutally assaulted for trying to form a union. My grandfather worked on the Rock Island Railroad, taking my father to hear Eugene Debs speak when my dad was just a child.”
“When I was growing up, my parents told me ‘if you cross a picket line, don’t bother coming home.’ My brother worked for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers and the imprint of support for Labor has stayed with us throughout our adult lives,” said Williamson. “Strengthening Labor strengthens America.”