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US rail workers get closer to a deal, and what they deserve

Interventions by Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden helped avert strike action, and an economic crisis.

By Emily Tamkin

The United States appears to have narrowly averted a crisis that could have seriously damaged its economy. 

Rail companies and unions representing rail workers have reached a tentative deal to avoid strike action, which the Biden administration reportedly helped to broker. The unions were threatening industrial action if there was no deal, which, because the workers are critical to rail service, would have derailed the economy. (Perhaps this sounds familiar to British readers, no stranger to rail strikes this summer.)

One point of contention between the two sides was whether workers could have unpaid time off to attend medical appointments without fear of penalty. Ultimately, the workers won this right in the Wednesday night negotiations. 

During the talks, Bernie Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, blocked a Republican proposal that would have forced the unions to accept recommendations from a nonpartisan panel which did not include pay-rises or time off to go to doctor’s appointments. Martin Walsh, the US secretary of labor, moderated the talks on Wednesday between industry leaders and the unions. Joe Biden was in touch with Walsh during the negotiations, and was, reportedly, “animated” about the lack of leave and flexibility for workers. 

We don’t know whether Biden’s animation came from outrage on behalf of the workers or concerns over the economy if the strikes went ahead. What matters is that Biden recognised that the solutions to both were the same: empowering the workers. If workers are critical to keeping the economy stable, then they deserve to be paid fairly. They certainly deserve the right to go to the doctor without fear of reprisal. And they deserve to have a president who supports that right. 

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There can be consequences for labour unions if a president does not side with workers; in 1981 president Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, which inspired greater animosity amongst the public towards unions across the country. 

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It is still to be seen whether the unions’ members support the deal. But Biden’s personal engagement with the talks shows that his administration does not disparage or belittle workers. It’s not everything, but it’s something nearing progress. 

[See also: Joe Biden’s speech: Trump and “Maga Republicans” are a threat to democracy]