Several officials said there was no illusion within the White House that a decision to call on Congress to implement a negotiated labor deal for railroad workers and operators would be universally popular.
The move, announced by President Joe Biden on Monday, was notable for its 506-word length and detailed, almost painful, explanation of the decision to secretly oppose a close political ally, like a The decision itself is explained as well.
While unpopular, the backlash from the labor movement was expected, one official said. Similar concerns from Democratic allies on Capitol Hill were seen as inevitable, given the course of action the White House has taken the past 18 times to prevent rail shutdowns and the sweeping economic fallout that would ensue. The House of Representatives is expected to vote Wednesday on legislation to avert rail strikes.
Time is ticking to avoid this before the December 9 deadline.
Less than 24 hours later on Tuesday, when Biden sat down with the four leaders of Congress, he laid out a strategic calculation in plain language that surpassed his decades of close ties to labor and advocacy for rank-and-file members General support for the policy is included in the revised protocol.
“It’s not an easy decision, but I think we have to do it,” Biden said of legislation to avoid a strike ahead of a meeting with lawmakers from both parties at the White House. “The economy is in jeopardy.”
Biden sat next to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the House Democratic leader and close ally made it clear after the meeting that while she was reluctant to weaken unions’ negotiating power, she would move forward with Biden’s call to pass legislation, pass A September tentative agreement was approved by labor leaders.
But it was Pelosi’s own statement, issued less than 30 minutes after Biden’s, that offered a glimpse into months of intensive behind-the-scenes efforts to prevent an economic catastrophe that White House officials deemed unacceptable.
Pelosi announced that the House of Representatives would act within days to respond to Biden’s call. The coordination is clear, as are the stakes. Biden spoke directly to Pelosi and senators. Her Senate counterpart, Chuck Schumer, said a source familiar with the matter said.
Administration officials have been providing constant updates to congressional leadership since late October, the sources said. By mid-November, those updates had begun to include contingency plans in case a deal was deemed out of reach. This includes actions taken by Congress to implement the interim agreement.
Lawmakers technically have the power to pursue a number of options, including an extended “cooling-off period,” in which negotiations can continue without the imminent threat of a strike. Union representatives never asked for that option.
Still, officials said asking Congress to act was not something Biden wanted to do — and, in fact, rejected it as an option until the two sides reached an initial agreement in September. But the decision underscores an unbreakable impasse that White House officials have reached within weeks as the deadline looms.
Before the announcement, Biden also spoke with Cabinet officials who will play a key role in the talks: Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. The agencies are also key players in the Interdepartmental Rail Group, which met daily throughout November.
The message about the current state of things is clear.
“During the ratification vote, the Secretaries of Labor, Agriculture and Transportation have been in regular contact with labor leaders and management,” Biden said in a statement announcing his decision. “They believe there is no way to resolve the dispute at the negotiating table and recommend that we seek action from Congress.”
Biden’s decision to call on Congress to act marks the latest twist in a process that administration officials have been exploring closely for months. It marks a complex confluence of business and labor disputes exacerbated by a once-in-a-century pandemic, legal and economic constraints, longstanding political alliances and the stark reality of looming midterm elections until November.
Officials noted that after more than 20 hours of marathon negotiations, the railroad operator and the union reached a preliminary agreement that included key elements for railroad workers. Union leaders have signed off on the proposal, which includes immediate pay increases of 14% and 24% over five years, plus annual cash bonuses of $1,000.
It was the largest wage increase the union had won in more than 50 years.
But four unions rejected the deal, underscoring the driving reality at the heart of the dispute: Wages and the economy never seemed to be the biggest sticking points in the negotiations.
Scheduling rules keep many workers on call 7 days a week even when they are not working, lack of sick pay common to workers in other industries, and staff shortages.
When Biden took to the Rose Garden podium a few months ago to celebrate the hard-won deal that averted a railroad strike, his top aides and cabinet officials knew their work was far from done.
Biden called the deal an “American victory” that would avert looming economic disaster. It marks a compromise between the rail operator and union leaders that was far from certain just 24 hours ago.
Hitting it just weeks before the midterm elections also marks a move away from potential political disaster for Biden and congressional Democrats, multiple people closely involved in or with knowledge of the negotiations acknowledged.
But it’s just a short respite.
Regular briefings for lawmakers and liaison with union and carrier representatives will follow in the coming weeks. The deal ultimately won’t stand on its own, sources said — something officials became increasingly aware of in the weeks leading up to the deadline.
Over the next several months, senior administration officials worked behind the scenes with their counterparts on Capitol Hill and with key negotiators underscoring the scale of the challenges that remain as rank-and-file union members assess deals — in some cases finding It’s seriously lacking.
For Biden, who never misses an opportunity to tout his labor sincerity, and whose team is full of officials with close ties to labor, resentment has resurfaced as his administration pushed for a deal in the first place. And the complex realities faced in the huge effort.
Rank-and-file union members see the lack of paid sick leave provisions as a major oversight brought on by the pandemic. Four of the 12 trade union parties negotiating voted to reject the deal their leaders signed in September.
Administration officials shared unions’ concerns about the lack of paid sick leave in the agreement, but the deal represented what they saw as a compromise that contained clear benefits, and workers became more vocal about their serious concerns about the work environment.
More critically, officials noted, the government is not a party to the negotiating table.
Extremely careful in trying not to overstep their legal powers – and acutely aware of the risk that a pro-union government would be seen as playing the scales as the two sides negotiated – officials played a mediating and convening role.
Walsh, the Labor secretary, convened his agency’s top negotiators in the final Italian food marathon to hammer out a tentative agreement and will continue in that role immediately after the agreement is announced.
Even as unions began voting against the deal, Walsh was trying to find a way forward.
Officials on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue said White House officials and Democratic leaders moved quickly on Tuesday to solidify support for the legislative action and allow time for the Dec. 9 deadline.
The opposition is bipartisan, if not yet widespread. Mori. Florida Republican Marco Rubio said he would oppose a deal rejected by workers.
Mori. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, said he would not agree to expedite the Senate’s deliberations to guarantee workers seven days of paid sick leave.
House Democratic leaders tried to calm the concerns of their caucus, eventually opting to schedule a separate vote on legislation to add paid leave to the agreement.
Still, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on Wednesday to pass a bill codifying the agreement. Schumer said after his meeting with Biden, he and the senator. House Republican leader Mitch McConnell has agreed to move forward “as soon as possible” after the House passes it.
For lawmakers grappling with a massive to-do list in the final weeks of this Congress, the willingness to prioritize the issue underscores a shared sense of urgency about the consequences of inaction.
So does Biden’s will — as a senator, he voted against congressional action to implement the railroad labor pact — urging lawmakers to act.
Biden has come under heavy criticism from organized labor since his decision this week to publicly call on Congress to pass a bill that would avoid a strike, but the current situation can hardly be described as “Biden sticks to the union,” said a person familiar with the railroad strike talks. The labor strategist told CNN, adding that turning to Congress is “always lurking in the background.”
“It’s not Reagan coming in with PATCO or something like that,” said the strategist, referring to President Ronald Reagan’s famous decision in the early 1980s to fire thousands of professional air traffic controllers. members in response to their strike. “This is a deal that the White House and the DOL and everybody take Labor very seriously.”
Just hours after Biden touted the need for Congress to act, he was in Bay City, Michigan, supporting his administration’s economic agenda.
Despite criticism from allies — Capitol Hill is making an urgent effort to secure votes — there was no mention of rail talks.
But Biden also didn’t hesitate to use a tried and tested line of applause, a line he rolled out repeatedly during his first two years in office — emphasizing a relationship that White House officials felt was strong enough to withstand the test.
“The middle class made America, and the unions made the middle class,” Biden said.