Biden’s Holiday Express delivers for 21st-century robber barons at rail workers’ expense

Praising himself as pro-union, Biden used heavy-handed tactic to head off strike he just told us he had prevented

Published December 2, 2022 5:30PM (EST)

Joe Biden delivers remarks about the Affordable Care Act and COVID-19 after attending a virtual coronavirus briefing with medical experts at The Queen theater on October 28, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Joe Biden delivers remarks about the Affordable Care Act and COVID-19 after attending a virtual coronavirus briefing with medical experts at The Queen theater on October 28, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

This article was originally published by InsiderNJ. Used by permission.

Two and a half months ago President Biden patted himself on the back for closing a rail labor pact that was a landmark "win for tens of thousands of rail workers who worked tirelessly through the pandemic" that had avoided a strike just before Christmas. This week, almost three weeks after the midterms, he had to turn to Congress to impose that same pact on 115,000 workers to avert "a potentially crippling national rail shutdown" just before Christmas.

What happened?

How did it come to pass President Biden, who describes himself as the "most pro-union president in U.S. history", choose to resort to such a heavy-handed tactic to head off a strike he just told us he had prevented? While President Biden did describe the deal as "tentative" in that Sept. 15 'we saved Christmas' statement, he made no mention that the agreement was totally contingent on the pending ratification of the 12 unions that represent the industry's workers. And while eight of the unions signed off on the deal, four of the unions, including some of the largest rejected it, with 55 percent of the workforce giving it a thumbs down primarily because it lacked paid sick days during AN ONGOING PANDEMIC.

Yikes. This was off brand by a freight train mile. We sure don't want any pot banging on this chapter.

The same avuncular guy that went around the country before the midterms proclaiming how that election was all about preserving democracy, had no trouble ignoring it when it applied to the actual workplace of essential workers. Of course, Biden was now in a real jam because he evidently believed his own puffed-up press release, which had failed to educate Americans on the only real power unions have, to reject a contract and to withhold their labor.

Unless of course, the President turns to a Congress, to compel workers to work under terms they rejected. If it seems coercive—it is, but thanks to the National Railway Labor Act, passed in 1926, the president can enlist Congress to do just that.

Ironically, back in 1992, the last time it was invoked, was by President George H. Bush when a much younger Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) was one of just a few stalwart pro-labor Democrats to vote NO.

By the time both the House and Senate signed off on Biden's PATCO like moment, progressive Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) found themselves voting WITH ultra-conservative Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), Josh Hawley (R-MO), and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) to oppose the imposition of the pact on rail workers. That vote was 80 to 15 with four Senators not voting and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) voting present.


As destiny would have it, this 21st century train wreck fell into the lap of New Jersey's own Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-10th) who chairs the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials. This week it would be up to Payne to try a real hat trick, get the House to sign off on Biden's defective rail deal and in the next breadth pass a bill to grant the rail workers seven of the 15 sick days they had been stiffed out of by the rail robber barons.

Not since Denzel Washington starred in the 2010 thriller Unstoppable as a locomotive engineer who gains control of a runaway freight train, has there been such a daunting assignment. The Biden White House needed to get this done fast because they said the railroads would have no choice but to start shutting down the nation's rail system, particularly for hazardous materials, days before the Dec. 9 deadline. Of course, the White House made it clear there was to be no slowing down for last minute fixes, COVID SMOVID.

This was Amtrak Joe's Holiday Express. In asking Congress to step in, Biden paid lip service for paid sick leave but suggested that Congress should hold off on voting to impose it. "However well-intentioned, any changes would risk delay and a debilitating shutdown," he wrote.

Biden continued. "As a proud pro-labor President, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement. But in this case – where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families – I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal."

At the outset of Tuesday's House floor debate, which Payne was to lead, he seemed a little unsteady before he yielded to Speaker Nancy Pelosi from the floor to make the case that the Congress fix the rail deal Biden wanted imposed on the workers.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pressed for the sick time bill and the imposition of the deal. The outgoing Speaker blasted the rail industry ownership for making "obscene profits on the backs of workers" while it "slashed jobs and cut corners on safety" and demanded "more and more from the workers…Over the last decade they have given $150 billion dollars in handouts to their corporate executives and wealthiest investors."

In short order, Payne was in command of the moment, doing his best on behalf of the labor constituency Biden was now abusing.

"Paid sick leave days are a right that for too long freight railroads have refused to provide to rail workers—that is the issue," Payne told his colleagues. "This benefit will cost less than one percent of the profits the railroads reported last year. Our bill will guarantee that freight rail workers will have seven sick leave and I am pleased that we have seen bipartisan support for this idea in the Senate."

Several minutes into the debate Payne picked up steam and from a debating standpoint ran circles around his GOP adversary, Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO).  Graves was running on E for talking points that boiled down to how much better railroad workers had it than the rest of America's workers and that Biden was turning to Congress to accomplish what he failed to do, resolve the rail labor dispute.

Payne provided the important backstory that correctly catalogued the intransigence of the railroads that are now captive to Wall Street. The industry has seen an unprecedented market consolidation with well over 40 Class One railroads now just seven giant conglomerates that have abused their increasing monopoly power to cash in on increased traffic volume even as they recklessly shrank their workforce by 30 percent. This maximizing of profits was accomplished by relying on what they call "precision scheduling railroading" that makes getting time off near impossible even during a once in a century mass death event.

"It [the measure granting seven paid sick days] will correct what the freight railroads have refused to do during three years of negotiations with their workers during a worldwide pandemic no less, despite the railroads earning tens of billions of dollars every year during the rise and height, and now the steadying of the COVID-19 pandemic," Payne said. "They risked their health and that of their families to keep our nation's freight moving. Rail workers cannot work remotely, and others work outdoors year-round, unlike 75 percent of private industry workers. I should note that the management at these vary same railroads has paid sick days."

By a 290 to 137 bipartisan tally, the House voted to impose the rail pact without the paid sick day provisions just as President Biden had requested.

The vote in support of rail workers getting the paid sick days, passed by a far narrower 221 to 207 votes.  Just three Republicans, crossed over to support the measure that AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said before the vote would be a remedy for a pact that "fell short by not including provisions on paid sick leave or fair scheduling."


Eight House Democrats voted NO on President Biden's request to impose the rail pact rejected by 55 percent of the aggregate rank and file including New Jersey's Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1st), that body's only union electrician.

"Today, I voted to keep a critical piece of American infrastructure running: our railways," Norcross said in a statement. "I voted to ensure that the workers who operate that strategic asset are treated fairly, earn a decent wage, and get paid sick leave. These hardworking men and women kept food on the table during the pandemic and kept goods on the shelves of small businesses. Our nation needs these workers to be healthy and strong so we can continue to grow our economy and deliver for the American people."

Norcross was joined by Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA), Rep. Jared Golden, Rep. Mary Peltola (D-Alaska), Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WIS), Rep. Rashida Tliab (D-MICH.), and Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA).

Just three House Republicans split with their caucus on the vote to require railroads to provide the seven paid sick days. They were Rep. Don Bacon (R-NEB), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), and Rep. John Katko (R-NY).

After the House acted, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) signed on a letter with his colleagues Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Tammy Baldwin (D-WIS), Sherrod Brown (D-OHIO), Ed Markey (D-MASS), Jeff Merkley (D-ORE), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Jack Reed (D-RI), Tina Smith (D-MINN), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) urging their colleagues to support the sick day provision.

"Supply chain problems coupled with increased consumer spending and online shopping habits have put the freight rail industry under incredible strain," the Senators wrote. "And as a result, train crews have been working around the clock often with inflexible and unpredictable work schedules to transport everything from food and fuel to medical supplies and cleaning products."

The statement continued. "But even as the need for worker protections and workplace flexibility have grown, railroad companies provide zero days of paid sick leave to their workers. What this means is that if a rail worker comes down with COVID, the flu or some other illness and calls in sick, that worker will not only receive no pay, but will be penalized and, in some cases, fired. That is absolutely unacceptable."

On the floor of the Senate Sen. Sanders (I-Vt.) had already made the case for the paid sick time measure earlier.

"What the freight industry is saying to its workers is this 'it doesn't matter if you have COVID—It doesn't matter if you are lying in a hospital bed because of a medical emergency—It doesn't matter if your wife has just given birth—It just doesn't matter." Sanders said. "If you do not come into work, no matter what the reason, we have the right to punish you. We have the right to fire you."

"Unfortunately, the 'most labor-friendly president' has opted to side with Big Business and call for a thwarting of railroad workers' rights to strike," said the Railroad Workers United, a national coalition of unionized railroad workers, in a statement. "On Monday, President Biden called upon Congress to adopt legislation that would mandate a contract and end the threat of any legally sanctioned rail strike from happening."

The RWU continued. "This, although railroad workers have voiced a deep desire to strike in recent months. Rail unions representing more than 55 percent of railroad workers have voted down their respective tentative contracts with the rail carriers in recent weeks."

The deal was rejected by the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, and SMART-TD, one of the largest rail unions.

"The SMART Transportation Division does not support the notion of Congress intervening in our collective bargaining negotiations to prevent a strike," SMART-TD said in a statement. "We firmly believe in the workers' right to fight for their own best interests, as well as the best interests of their families. Unfortunately, threats to the economy have caused this Congress to believe that a strike aversion is the best course for this nation."

SMART-TD's statement continued. "Our members want and need sick leave, but even more so, they need relief from the damning effects of operational changes made by the railroads over the last five years. If Congress truly wants to take action to improve the industry for our members, then we recommend legislation that will work to reverse the devastation of Precision Scheduled Railroading."


When the smoke cleared, the U.S. also rejected the sick leave fix 52 to 43, shy of the 60 needed to pass. Of course, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WVA) voting NO, but six Republican Senators crossed the aisle to join all the other Democrats to support the labor position.

Not present for that vote were Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Raphael Warnock (D-GA) whose run-off election is Tuesday.

America's 21st century railroad robber barons were off the hook for sick days thanks to their bipartisan lock on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

"The shackles [of regulation] have been removed and you have a bunch of irresponsible corporate leadership at the railroads who are abusing the monopoly power they have gained through mergers and acquisitions," said Matt Parker, a Union Pacific engineer, with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, who is also affiliated with Railway Workers United. [Listen Here]

What's tragically missed here is that there's a dangerous through line between Trump's tenure and Biden's presidency in that what our nation's leadership continues to miss is the link between how the lack of paid sick time, particularly in the TRANSPORT sector, promotes the spread of something as deadly as COVID.

Why you might even have a mass death event that could kill over a million people and disable millions more.

Lessons learned indeed.

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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