Did Congress - and the GOP - Blow the Rail Strike Resolution?
The Biden White House and Congress picked an odd way to resolve a labor issue. Other transportation workers - think Airlines - are paying attention. And the politics are interesting.
The 117th Congress is winding up its work with a heavy-duty “lame duck” session, replete with unfinished business - items before the election that were kicked down the road. While oddly focused on legislation that wasn’t needed - the misbranded “Respect for Marriage Act” - it faces deadlines on more pressing matters. That includes funding government agencies and dealing with an impending rail strike that could have disrupted the economy just before Christmas.
We can now strike (pun intended) the last item off the list. With support from all Democrats and most Republicans, Congress gave the Biden Administration what it wanted. The House tried to give rail workers something the Biden Administration and rail barons didn’t want to provide, seven days of paid sick leave, but it failed to meet a 60-vote threshold in the Senate. Over 400 industry trade associations, from retailers to manufacturers, are relieved.
But did Congress do the right thing by imposing a labor-rail industry agreement based on a 1926 law? No.
My food industry and manufacturing friends will bristle at that. After all, over 400 industry trade groups representing everything from wheat growers to beer makers weighed in with scary rhetoric. From CNN:
The 449 business groups – which range from the Aluminum Association and the Beer Institute to the US Apple Association and the Window & Door Manufacturers Association – said this is a matter of “grave urgency” as even a short-term work stoppage would cause large problems. They said the best outcome would be a voluntary agreement between the unions and the freight railroads but stressed Congress needs to prepare for the worst.
“Absent a voluntary agreement, we call on you to take immediate steps to prevent a national rail strike and the certain economic destruction that would follow,” the groups wrote, noting that Congress has intervened 18 times since 1926 in labor negotiations when interstate commerce was threatened.
A rail strike could become a reality as early as December 9, causing shortages, spiking prices and halting factory production. It could also disrupt commuter rail services for up to seven million travelers a day and the transportation of 6,300 carloads of food and farm products a day, among other items, according to the business groups.
The thing is, nobody argued for a rail strike. Not even the four rail worker unions, representing almost half of all rail workers that opposed the Biden Administration’s settlement deal (eight other unions agreed, although they would have honored the picket lines). The Taft-Hartley Act allows the federal government to order a “cooling off” period of up to 90 days. Alaska Republican US Senator Dan Sullivan proposed an amendment on Thursday for a 60-day cooling-off period. Only 25 Republicans voted for it - over 70 Senators voted no.
Not Your Typical Labor vs. Management Disagreement
This wasn’t a typical “management vs. labor” disagreement. After all, union bosses negotiated and signed on to this agreement, which included 24 percent pay hikes over four years (still below the inflation rate), even with average rail worker pay currently topping $110,000 per year. The agreement reportedly provides an additional $11,000 to every rail worker in bonuses and back pay. “But it’s not the pay that has been the sticking point in the negotiations,” reported CNN. “It’s the work rules and quality of life issues, such as staffing levels and paid sick time, which the tentative agreements do not include.”
But what grates union workers was the allegedly pro-union Biden Administration siding with union bosses and management over the rank and file to jam down an agreement with a big assist from Congress. After all, the last time Congress intervened in a rail worker dispute, in 1992, then-Senator Joe Biden sided with the rail workers and voted no.
It interests me how all this was punted by the Biden Administration, union bosses, and Democrats in Congress until after the midterm elections.
But after turning down Sullivan’s amendment, Vermont Socialist Bernie Sanders (I-VT) offered an amendment similar to one passed by the House passed to add seven paid sick days. It garnered 52 votes, including five Republicans, but the amendment required 60 votes to pass.
Why a supermajority? To expedite consideration of the congressional joint resolution to avert a rail strike, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer needed agreement on a “unanimous consent” request. He had already invoked Rule XIV for House Joint Resolution 100 to bypass Senate committees and be brought directly to the floor. Republicans agreed but at the cost of a supermajority 60-vote threshold for amendments and final passage.
One of those five Republicans, US Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), was seen fist-bumping Sanders on the floor after the vote. Wish I had a picture of that. “I always knew you were a socialist,” Sanders was overheard quipping Cruz. Texas has more rail workers than any other state. Cruz supported Sullivan’s “cooling off” amendment and voted against final passage along with 14 other colleagues, primarily Republicans.
There’s no question that a rail strike would have crippled supply chains at a delicate moment for the economy already laboring (pun intended) from inflation and supply chain challenges resulting from labor shortages and a few other forces. While 75 percent of intercity shipments are made by truck, rail and its 125,000 workers - considered essential during the pandemic - are integral to the movement of goods. While most manufacturing plants distribute finished goods by truck, many inputs arrive by rail. A food maker - think bakeries - ship bread and snacks by truck. But for larger plants, oil and flour often arrive by rail.
This must be a wake-up call to the rail industry and Congress’s relationship with it. The rail industry, notably the American Association of Railroads (AAR), is mainly responsible for this conundrum and crippling the truck industry - whom they see as competitors, not partners in our supply chain - from being able to help step in during labor challenges.
As for the more than 400 trade associations that blithely went along, they need support efforts to modernize and improve efficiencies elsewhere in our collective supply chains, especially intercity trucks, to help minimize the consequences when this happens again. I don’t remember many of them being involved in the Coalition for Transportation Productivity a few years ago when we worked for significant trucking industry reforms.
A few years ago, the Coalition (disclosure - I was actively engaged with it on behalf of my employer) proposed federal legislation to allow heavier trucks equipped with an extra axle to improve safety through improved braking power and better distribute weight to ease pressure on Interstate highways. At the behest of the AAR, then-US Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA) led the fight to kill the proposal in the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The provision would have saved manufacturers and other shippers millions of dollars and helped ease a long-standing and still-growing shortage of truck drivers.
It is long past time for Congress, Democrats and Republicans, to take a more critical look at the rail industry instead of just taking their money and doing what they’re told. Rail companies are critical to our economy but are far from blameless from the almost-crippling strike. And it’s time for rail industry leaders to rethink their knee-jerk opposition to supply chain improvements elsewhere, including the trucking industry. Europe has already moved to six-axle trucks and a robust rail system. Canada and Mexico have far higher truck weight limits than the US, at least on interstate highways. Where is our US Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg? I have no idea.
Politically, many Republicans blew an opportunity to cement their “working party” future while preserving their (mostly) long-standing “hands-off” approach to meddling in labor-management disputes. The Biden White House not only sided with rail management and union bosses over the rail industry’s rank and file on an agreement, but they jammed down a heavy-handed approach to end negotiations and avoid a strike nobody wanted. I’ll be interested to see how future rail union leadership elections go.
Sullivan was right to seek a “cooling off” period and keep the government’s hands off a labor versus management dispute, despite winning only 25 votes. With that effort failing, Senator Sanders handed the GOP a perfect opportunity to join him on a simple matter of fairness - to grant workers seven days of paid sick leave per year, fewer than most employers already give their employees, at least after one year of service. That only 15 Senators voted against the Biden jam-down is a disappointment.
Kudos to Republicans such as Cruz, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), and others for figuring that out. Maybe their colleagues will awaken to that next time this happens. And given how closely airline and other transportation unions were eyeballing this, there will be a “next time” and another opportunity perhaps sooner than they realize.
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