WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden believes unions built the middle class. He also knows that a strike by railway workers could harm the economy ahead of the midterm elections.
That left him Wednesday in the awkward position of espousing the virtues of organizing in Detroit, a mainstay of the labor movement, while members of his administration pulled out all the stops to keep the railroad talks in Washington going. and unionized workers. in the hope of avoiding a shutdown.
United Auto Workers Local 598 member Ryan Buchalski introduced Biden at the Detroit auto show as “the most pro-union, pro-worker president in American history” and someone who “kicked the ass of the working class”. Buchalski recalled the crucial strikes by autoworkers in the 1930s.
In the speech that followed, Biden acknowledged that he wouldn’t be in the White House without the support of unions like the UAW and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, saying autoworkers “m’ brought to the dance”.
But back in Washington, his administration officials were in tense negotiations to prevent a strike — one of the most powerful sources of leverage unions have to bring about change and improve working conditions.
A shutdown could begin as early as Friday if the two sides fail to agree on a deal. Of the 12 unions involved, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers of District 19 rejected a deal but agreed to extend talks until September 29. This saved some time, but not necessarily more certainty as a stoppage is always possible. could stop food and fuel shipments at a cost of $2 billion a day.
Much more is at stake than sick leave and wage increases for 115,000 unionized railroad workers. The ramifications could extend to congressional control and the transportation network that spins factories, stocks store shelves, and assembles the United States as an economic powerhouse.
That’s why White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, speaking aboard Air Force One as it headed for Detroit, said a strike by railroad workers was “a result unacceptable to our economy and the American people.” Railway companies and their workers’ representatives “must stay at the table, negotiate in good faith to resolve outstanding issues and reach an agreement”, she said.
Biden faces the same sort of predicament as Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 with coal and Harry Truman in 1952 with steel – how do you balance the needs of labor and business while doing what’s best for the nation? The railroads were so important during World War I that Woodrow Wilson temporarily nationalized the industry to keep goods moving and prevent strikes.
Inside the White House, aides see no contradiction between Biden’s dedication to unions and his desire to avoid a strike. Union activism has increased under Biden, as evidenced by a 56% increase in petitions for union representation with the National Labor Relations Board so far this fiscal year.
A person familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss White House deliberations on the issue, said Biden’s mindset going into the debate was that he was the president of the whole country, not just organized labor.
As the economy is still recovering from the supply chain disruptions of the pandemic, the president’s goal is to keep all parties at the table until a deal is finalized. The person said the White House views a commitment to continue to bargain in good faith as the best way to avoid a shutdown while exercising the collective bargaining principles Biden holds dear.
Biden also knows a shutdown could worsen the dynamics that have contributed to soaring inflation. and created a political headache for the ruling party.
Eddie Vale, Democratic political consultant and former AFL-CIO communications aide, said the White House was pursuing the right approach at a perilous time.
“Nobody wants a railroad strike, not the companies, not the workers, not the White House,” he said. “Nobody wants it this close to the election.”
Vale added that the sticking point in the talks was “respect essentially — sick and bereavement leave,” issues Biden has supported in his speeches and with his policy proposals.
Jake Rosenfeld, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis, noted that sticking points in the talks involve “greater schedule predictability and the ability to take time off to deal with routine medical procedures as well as ‘to emergencies”.
Politically, the administration generally backs these demands, diminishing their “willingness to really play hardball with unions that haven’t settled yet,” said Rosenfeld, who wrote the book “What Unions No Longer Do “.
Sensing a political opportunity, Senate Republicans moved on Wednesday to pass legislation imposing contract terms on unions and railroads to avoid a shutdown. Democrats, who control both houses of Congress, blocked it.
“If a strike occurs and cripples food, fertilizer and energy deliveries across the country, it will be because the Democrats blocked this bill,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch. McConnell, R-Ky.
The economic impact of a possible strike was not lost on members of the Business Roundtable, a Washington-based group that represents CEOs. It released its quarterly economic outlook on Wednesday.
“We’ve had a lot of headwinds from supply chain issues since the start of the pandemic and those issues would be geometrically magnified,” Group CEO Josh Bolten told reporters. “There are manufacturing plants all over the country that probably have to close. … There are essential products to keep our water clean.
The roundtable also held a board meeting on Wednesday. But Bolten said Lance Fritz, chairman of the board’s international committee and CEO of Union Pacific Railroad, would miss it “because he’s working hard to try to resolve the strike.”
Back at the Labor Department, negotiators ordered Italian food as the talks dragged on Wednesday night.