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Biden faces tough questions from labor movement after rail union deal


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BOSTON — Hours after signing a bill into law to avert a national rail shutdown by forcing a deal on labor unions, President Biden dropped by a campaign stop, where electrical union workers made calls to Georgia voters on Friday.

The president was greeted by a standing ovation as he walked into a union hall where members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103 were calling voters on behalf of Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), underscoring Biden’s tight ties with labor unions.

“I wouldn’t be standing here without the IBEW,” Biden said, adding that labor could also be pivotal in the Georgia race. “That’s not hyperbole.”

A short drive away, dozens of protesters — angry with how Biden pushed Congress to intervene in stopping a rail union strike — carried signs that read: “Without the right to strike, Workers have no union rights.” They were organized by the Democratic Socialists of America.

After pushing Congress to halt a costly union strike during the height of the holiday season, the self-proclaimed “most pro-union president” in U.S. history is now in the awkward position of having to shore up his image as organized labor’s biggest supporter.

The rail contract going into effect gives workers pay increases, more flexibility to take time off for doctor appointments and one paid personal day — but no dedicated paid time off for sickness, which rail workers fought for. But some unions in the broader labor movement are smarting over the way the deal went down.

“Forcing people to work under conditions they have not agreed to is supposedly unconstitutional — and it will lead to massive instability,” said Sara Nelson, the president of the largest flight attendants union, which faces strike restrictions similar to those of rail workers. “Congress could have chosen to respect the collective-bargaining process and call the question with a rail strike before ever intervening.”

The rail strike threatened high stakes for the White House. The rail trade group put the cost of a strike at $2 billion a day, endangering travel, critical supplies and commerce during the busy holiday season.

Senior administration officials said while they are aware that some union members are unhappy with the president’s decision to push for an intervention in the strike, he made that call because of the devastating impact it would have had on working Americans, including union members. The officials added that President Biden regularly drops in on union halls and other labor events on the campaign trail.

“This isn’t the president versus workers or the president versus a strike,” said Celeste Drake, Biden’s top labor adviser. “This was the president standing with all of America against a rail shutdown. This was to keep the rails running and make sure communities have clean drinking water, that families see bread on the shelves when they go to the grocery store. The president will maintain his reputation as the most pro-union president ever in the long run and he has promised to secure paid leave for all working Americans.”

Meanwhile, Biden has scored other wins for unions, including putting a tough advocate for workers at the helm of the National Labor Relations Board and passing legislation that he has insisted will create good-paying union jobs.

Senate adopts deal to block rail strike, sending it to Biden

But the White House intervention has provoked tensions in Biden’s relationship with the labor movement in a way that even Biden appears to acknowledge. On Thursday night outside of the state dinner with French President Emmanuel Macron, when reporters asked whether rail workers deserve paid sick leave benefits, Biden became visibly annoyed, saying, “I love you guys. I negotiated a contract no one else could negotiate.”

At the bill signing Friday morning, Biden said that enacting the deal “was tough for me” but necessary to avoid a “catastrophe.” Asked how soon should rail workers expect paid sick leave, he said, “As soon as I can convince Republicans to see the light.”

For his part, Biden has noted that most of the railway unions (eight of the 12) did agree to the contract. And other Democrats joined Biden in blaming congressional Republicans for opposing a measure to include seven paid sick days to the agreement.

“Put up or shut up,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said on MSNBC Thursday night. “If you can’t vote for this, to give workers today — who really have hard jobs, dangerous jobs — if you can’t guarantee them paid sick leave, don’t tell anybody that you stand with working families.”

Yet a lot of rail union workers say they felt betrayed by the president and Democratic legislators who they see as kowtowing to the interests of the powerful freight railroads, despite their professed allegiance to labor.

“I assume Biden is hoping we have a short memory,” said Beau Trego, who has worked as a conductor for 17 years. “This shows that for him big business is more important than the worker’s plight. That’s for sure.”

Outside of the rail industry, union workers called out what they say is Biden’s hypocrisy. Unionized Starbucks baristas, many of them young liberals who have been in the spotlight of the U.S. labor movement this year, said they were angry.

Maggie Carter, 28, a barista at a unionized Starbucks in Knoxville, Tennessee said Biden’s decision to tell Congress to impose the deal had already cast doubt among her fellow union members on Biden’s integrity.

“Honestly, I’m really angry,” Carter said. “We showed out in numbers to vote for this president for a reason. This shows us that we didn’t win much. As a railroad worker, how can you vote for Biden after this?”

Christian Smalls, the president of the first union at Amazon that formed earlier this year in Staten Island, met with President Biden in the Oval Office in May after receiving an invitation celebrated by young union activists. But Smalls said he had been following the rail news closely and was also angered by the White House’s decision to intervene to avert a strike.

“It’s a shame for the working class that the administration — which claims to be the most pro-labor — isn’t siding with the rank and file union members,” Smalls said. “It’s even a bigger shame that the threat of a strike was over seven sick days, which is breadcrumbs.”

Still, some union members have quietly acknowledged the president faced a particularly difficult situation having to choose between economic calamity and union workers, according to two union leaders who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal sentiments. Some of the top rail unions faced very difficult and close votes within their own membership, when it came to approving the deal.

But the leader of the AFL-CIO Liz Shuler said paid sick leave needs to stay front and center on policymakers’ agenda.

“While rail workers won significant wage increases and other important gains today, it’s deeply disappointing that 43 senators sided with multibillion-dollar rail corporations to block desperately needed paid sick days,” Shuler said. “The labor movement will continue to mobilize and push forcefully until every rail worker — and all America’s workers — has the paid sick leave they need and deserve.”