Pro-union Americans, Democrats, Progressives, and Socialists alike are upset with Biden upon his signing of a bill to force a tentative railroad contract agreement and prevent a strike. After the media spinsters are done with it however, the anger will likely end up where it usually does – with Republicans and those greedy capitalists that hate their own workers and don’t care if they live or die (sarcasm). In reality, there is plenty of blame to go around for the failure of the negotiations, as unreasonable positioning and political games have been played by all.
Right now, the focus is on Biden because his administration aided in negotiations regarding the rail dispute for months. While management and union negotiators reached a tentative agreement in September that gave each side some of what it wanted, finalization was not reached as rail workers threatened a strike. Biden then had to resort to asking Congress to intervene. The House, then the Senate approved a bill generally supporting what was negotiated while also making a strike illegal. Biden immediately signed it. The rail workers and their supporters had hoped if Congress was to act, they would include their demands in the bill to be forced upon the relevant parties. The opposition now is not necessarily over Congress acting to force a deal, only that it failed to force the deal they prefer.
Using government force however is never preferable to negotiating a willful agreement. Biden’s inability to convince those who are supposed to be his supporters (unions) of the merits of his own administration-led negotiations ought to be considered an embarrassing failure. While few contracts are perfect or give each side everything they want, this negotiated contract did give rail workers a significant pay increase (the companies agreed to a 24 percent pay increase by 2024, retroactive pay back to 2020, and annual bonuses. Pay for these workers was already among the highest for all workers). The deal did also address some of their legitimate concerns regarding healthcare costs (freeze on costs), scheduling, and time off for emergencies and medical issues. Getting rid of penalties for taking time off for such emergencies and medical issues was part of the negotiated tentative agreement, even if it didn’t come in the form multiple paid sick days (they were given one additional paid personal day to go along with their existing types of leave and compensation).
This amendment that failed will ultimately be the focus of the anger in the media. Biden’s failure as a negotiator will be forgotten. As it stands now, Biden is being accused of “selling out” to the interests of big business by making the ability of the workers to strike illegal and forcing through less than the workers wanted. But why even try to broker negotiations in good faith if ultimately everyone is going to play politics resulting in a government-forced settlement? A threat of a strike only gets you so far if you know ultimately the government is going to use its power to bypass it (and conversely the threat of a strike will not move the companies much further if they know the government will not allow it). There are two considerations; first, if you are on the union side you can hope to convince enough lawmakers to give you what you want, and second, you can use the opposition to your extreme demands as ammunition in future political campaigns and organizing efforts. Biden will ultimately be given a pass because Republicans can be blamed for not supporting the amendment with seven paid sick days and the companies can be blamed for not giving them what they want in the first place. All the actual big picture compromise and the consideration of total compensation increases will be forgotten.
We should not want to set precedents like this where ultimately the government is the imposing force in such negotiations and partisan sides get demonized for the failures of others to come to willful mutual agreement. If a supposedly sympathetic administration cannot get its ducks in a row to support a reasonable compromise, how can anyone? If a compromise is made and then lawmakers can just tack on additional requirements afterwards, the impetus for honest willful concessions in future negotiations will be weakened. If seven paid sick days was included but there was a smaller pay increase would this have been acceptable? If future per worker increases in compensation are threatened by the need to hire more people to adjust scheduling to ensure no disruptions in service quality, would this be acceptable? How about price increases that may or may not shift demand to competitors in trucking and barge transportation? Opponents of reasonable negotiated settlements can only blame “greedy corporations” and eat into profit expectations so much before stability is threatened. The same goes for strikes (legal or illegal). Indeed, many activists are calling for unions to still strike even though it is now illegal (or disrupt service by calling off). This should be rejected by reasonable people, even if they supported a different outcome, because it will not bode well for future negotiations.
It remains to be seen if there will be any such disruptions. My guess is that they will be minimal, if at all, because the forced agreement did improve the situation for workers and the effort would likely fail to provide any further benefit.