Gee and Ursula: Railroad strike averted, but at what cost?

Dec 2, 2022, 2:43 PM
Activists in support of unionized rail workers protest outside the U.S. Capitol Building on November 29, 2022 in Washington, DC. President Joe Biden has called on Congress to pass legislation averting a railroad shutdown ahead of the December 9 coordinated strike date. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
(Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The chances of a sanctioned national freight rail strike are over.

After calling on Congress to pass legislation forcing railroad unions to accept a labor agreement the Biden administration negotiated in September, President Joe Biden has now signed that bill into law.

“The bill I’m about to sign ends a difficult rail dispute and helps our nation avoid what would have been an economic catastrophe,” Biden said.

The president added that his team helped negotiate a “good product, but we still have more work to do in my view.”

A freight rail strike also would have a big potential impact on passenger rail since Amtrak and many commuter railroads rely on tracks owned by the freight railroads.

Railroad unions decry Biden’s plan to block possible strike

The agreement negotiated by the administration includes a pay increase of 24% over five years and an additional personal day.

It had been accepted by eight out of the twelve unions representing railroad employees.

The unions that did not agree with the contract raised issues with the amount of paid sick leave.

Union officials were asking for seven days of paid sick leave for employees, and Biden said he would continue to push for that benefit for every U.S. worker.

Currently, most railroad employees do not receive any paid sick leave. Workers under the Transportation Communications International Union and the American Train Dispatchers Association negotiated a separate paid sick leave based on an individual basis.

On the Gee and Ursula Show, hosts Gee Scott and Ursula Reutin, along with producer Andrew “Chef” Lanier, discussed the possibility of a strike and the contract that was forced on the railroad unions.

Gee had questions about how an industry as important and profitable as freight railroads could not afford to pay workers on the days that they got sick.

He wondered what the hold-up was.

“Can we agree that seven paid sick days in a year is something that they can afford?” Gee asked.

“You’re talking about the $21 billion in profits that were made just in the first nine months of 2022, guaranteeing seven paid sick days to the railroad workers would cost the industry $321 million in a year.

“That’s 1.5% of the profit,” Gee continued. “So it feels like I’m missing something here.”

By rejecting the new contract, the unions created the possibility of a strike beginning Dec. 9.

Economists say that could have cost the U.S. economy $2 billion a day. They predicted that if it went on for a month, 700,000 workers would have lost their jobs.

Ursula said this would have been a blow to the economy, which is already dealing with record-high inflation. “The strike before the holiday season could have been devastating,” she continued.

“They should continue demanding that you get sick leave and be paid for it. And I think that’s still in the works, but only some of [the unions] had agreed to the continuity contracts, but others were holding out,” Ursula said.

“If they had gone on strike, this would have had just enormously devastating consequences for everybody. And also, it would have put what is in the contract in jeopardy, which is a 24% pay increase over five years.”

House Democrats narrowly adopted a measure to add seven days of paid sick leave to the tentative agreement, but that change fell eight votes shy of the 60-vote threshold needed for Senate passage.

Railroad workers and other union representatives from multiple other unions have expressed dismay at Biden’s and Congress’s decision.

Those unions, including the largest federation of trade unions (the AFL-CIO), said they would continue to fight.

Chef compared the rail strike to the Federal Aviation Administration’s walkout that then-president Ronald Reagan put down in 1981.

“If rail workers go on strike and hold up the economy to the tune of $2 billion a day, who in the general public is going to think that the rail workers are holding the country hostage versus the railroad companies holding the country hostage?” Chef said.

“The vast majority of people would point right to the workers.”

Listen to Gee Scott and Ursula Reutin weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Gee and Ursula: Railroad strike averted, but at what cost?