January 29, 2023

WASHINGTON– Most labor disputes are never debated in Congress. But thanks to a nearly 100-year-old law regulating labor relations only in railroads and airlines, what was otherwise a purely economic issue has become a political one.

TThe video shown is from a previous report.

The Railroad Labor Act was passed in 1926 as one of the nation’s first labor laws. By this time, most railways were already unionized, some even as late as the mid-19th century. The structure was therefore set up to regulate labor negotiations between unions and management, rather than overseeing organizing campaigns for new unions and additional members, CNN reported.

The law allowed the House of Representatives to vote Wednesday to impose unpopular contracts on four railroad unions whose members have already rejected the terms, followed by a Senate vote late Thursday that did the same.

The measure now goes to President Joe Biden, who has announced he will sign it. If he does, there will be no chance of a December 9 strike that would have shut down about 30% of the country’s cargo shipments. A prolonged strike would have resulted in shortages of a wide range of items, from groceries to petrol to cars, and likely increased prices.

The House of Representatives also passed legislation that would give unions paid sick leave to address the problem they said was causing members to reject the accords. But efforts to pass the same measure in the Senate were unsuccessful, even though 52 out of 95 senators voted in favor. The measure required 60 votes to pass the Senate.

Under the Railroad Labor Act, the federal agency that oversees labor relations on railroads and airlines is the National Arbitration Body, which attempts to bring the two sides together and sets a number of limits and cool-off periods during which unions cannot strike and management can the workers don’t lock out. And if all those efforts fail, Congress can step in and enforce a treaty under which both sides must operate.

When bargaining at other companies, workers’ ability to strike is the strongest option unions have to achieve their goals at the negotiating table. And even the railroads admit that the law makes strikes extremely unlikely.

“The goal of the Railway Labor Act was to reduce the likelihood of a walkout,” said Ian Jefferies, CEO of the Association of American Railroads, the trade group that represents the railroads. “And it’s been remarkably effective at it.”

As much as management likes the law and its restrictions on strikes, the unions hate it. They say it would be much easier to reach an agreement that their members can support if they had the leverage of a possible strike. And they say that by weighing the cost of a potential strike, management would realize that it had the resources to meet those demands without an actual work stoppage.

The big four railroads — Union Pacific, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and Berkshire Hathaway’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe — reported record-breaking earnings for 2021. Wall Street analysts are expecting even better earnings in 2022, at least for the three railroads they cover.

If they were caught under the National Labor Relations Act, the labor law that governs labor relations in most companies in the country, unions could threaten to go on strike. But under the Railway Labor Act, management can lean on hopes that Congress will give them the deal it wants.

“This action prevents us from reaching the end of our process, takes away our power and ability to force negotiations, or force the railroads to … do the right thing,” said Michael Baldwin, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, a of the four unions whose members voted against the tentative agreements reached last fall, which Congress now stands ready to impose on members.

The railroads denied they wanted this to end with Congress, preferring to reach an agreement with unions that could be ratified by members.

“I don’t think it’s anyone’s goal to get Congress involved, but Congress has a history of showing a willingness to step in when needed,” AAR’s Jefferies said.

But Biden, in his statement urging Congress to force the rejected interim agreements on railroad workers to keep them on the job, seemed to acknowledge that there was no chance rail management would reach an agreement with the unions.

“During the ratification votes, labor, agriculture and transport ministers have been in regular contact with union leaders and management,” he said. “They believe that there is no way to resolve the dispute at the negotiating table.”

The railroads refused to accept union demands for paid sick leave. Jefferies also said the railroads would only agree to make changes to sick day rules if it was within “the scope” of the proposal put forward this summer by a presidential committee tasked with finding a compromise agreement.

This means that in order to get the sick pay they want, unions would have to forego other salaries or benefits to leave the overall economics of the package unchanged. The likelihood that Congress will push through an agreement along the lines of the Presidential Committee’s recommendations or the tentative agreements means that management has little incentive to agree to the unions’ demands.

The decision to urge Congress to act was politically difficult for Biden, who is often described as the most pro-union president in recent history. While serving in the Senate, Biden voted against an earlier attempt to force a contract on railroad unions to keep them in the workplace.

“As a proud, pro-Labour President, I hesitate to overrule the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the deal,” he said in his statement Monday night calling on Congress to act.

But he said he couldn’t ignore the economic upheaval a rail strike could cause and he had no choice but to turn to Congress and its powers.

“In that case — where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families — I think Congress needs to use its powers to adopt this deal,” he said.

And he said the deals, while not everything unions wanted, were good for unions, with the biggest pay rises in more than 50 years and some improvements in other contract terms.

“On the day it was announced, union leaders, business leaders and elected officials all hailed it as a fair resolution to the dispute between the hard-working men and women of rail freight unions and the companies in that industry,” Biden said. “The agreement was made in good faith by both parties.”

But the unions and their allies say it is wrong to force members to accept an agreement they have rejected because it denies workers the basic sick days they demand.

“During the first three quarters of this year, the railroad industry made a record $21.2 billion in profits,” said a group of a dozen Democratic senators led by Senator Bernie Sanders. “Guaranteeing seven days of paid sick leave for rail workers would cost the industry just $321 million a year — less than 2 percent of its total profits. Please don’t tell us that the rail industry cannot afford to guarantee its workers paid sick days.”

But only 4 of the 12 senators who made the statement — Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — voted against imposing the unpopular treaties. The other eight who signed the statement — Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Alex Padilla of California, Tina Smith of Minnesota, and Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island — all joined the 80-15 vote to impose the treaties to block the strike.

(The CNN Wire & 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.)

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