Biden and Congress force a contract on rail workers

Railroad workers were ready to strike to win paid sick days, but instead Congress passed a law to impose terms on them that most hadn’t ratified. | PHOTO, PORTLAND RAIL YARD, BY CELINA FLORES


Who says Congress can’t act quickly? Just two days after a Nov. 28 plea from President Joe Biden, the House voted 290-137 to pass a bill imposing a contract settlement on 115,000 railroad workers nationwide, a settlement that majorities of the biggest rail unions had voted to reject. The Senate voted 80-15 to pass it the very next day, and the day after that, Biden signed it into law. 

The settlement was proposed by three presidential appointees in August, and it raises wages 24% over a five-year period. But wages weren’t why workers rejected it. Rail workers are suffering from extreme overwork and stress from being constantly on-call, a direct result of their highly profitable employers’ decision to reduce the rail workforce and run lean. The U.S. rail workforce has declined by nearly one-third—about 45,000 jobs—over the past six years. Rail workers’ biggest complaint is that they can’t take sick days, not even to schedule a doctor’s appointment. The new settlement gives them one very limited sick day per year.

In the House, it was Democrats who put the bill on the schedule, and Democrats who delivered the votes to pass it. In what was widely criticized as a false gesture, Democrats also passed a separate bill to add seven sick days to the settlement, fully and correctly expecting that it would fail to get enough support to overcome the Senate’s self-imposed 60-vote filibuster requirement. The sick days bill, HCR 119, passed 221-207 in the House and 52-43 in the Senate, not enough to meet the 60-vote threshold.

History may remember the episode as a betrayal by the man who pledged to be the most pro-union president in U.S. history. As Congress rushed to pass the bill he requested, over 500 labor historians signed an open letter to Biden and his Labor Secretary Marty Walsh denouncing his decision to ask Congress to impose a settlement, calling it “a negation of the democratic will of tens of thousands of workers and a subversion of your commitment to a revival of the American union movement.”

The bill to impose the settlement, House Joint Resolution 100, is just two pages long, and the first page lists Congress’ justifications for the action. HJR 100 declares that the most recent tentative agreements that weren’t ratified by rail workers are binding and have the same effect as though they were arrived at by agreement.

Its passage is a big win for the railroad companies, which were already in record profit territory. Last year U.S. rail companies made over $27 billion in profit, almost double what they made a decade ago. As former labor secretary Robert Reich pointed out, adjusted operating margins for the five largest U.S. railroads were 41% last year. Ten years ago, they were 29%. Two decades ago, they were 15%. Since 2010, the top five rail carriers have also spent $114 billion in stock buybacks and $77 billion in dividends, far more than the $138 billion they spent on their infrastructure. In short, the rail companies could afford to staff up, grant sick days, and make long-term commitments to their employees. But they don’t want to, and thanks to Congress, they don’t have to.

“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,” said a written press statement attributed to AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler.

Congress is a repeat offender when it comes to curtailing rail workers’ collective bargaining rights, having done so now 12 times since 1963.

In 1992, a well known booster of trains was one of six senators who fought against Congress ending a railroad strike with legislation, and argued that Congress shouldn’t interfere in labor disputes. His name? Joe Biden.

How they voted in Oregon and SW Washington

YES TO IMPOSE a CONTRACT on rail workers

  • House Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) and  Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.);  
  • Senate Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.)


  • House  Cliff Bentz (R-Ore.) 
  • Senate  Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)

YES TO add seven sick days to THE CONTRACT

  • House Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) 
  • Senate Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.)


  • House Cliff Bentz (R-Ore.), Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.)

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