American workers have the right to band together and bargain collectively for better pay and benefits — and unions are generally a force for good. That’s why we’ve cheered the push to organize Amazon warehouses, Starbucks locations and other workplaces. And when push comes to shove, employees have a right to withhold their labor, or strike. But this is where we insert an asterisk.
An impending rail strike — the result of four of 12 rail unions rejecting a solid compromise deal brokered by the Biden administration in September — would do widespread, multibillion-dollar daily damage to the American economy already struggling to recover from record inflation. It would knot supply chains for weeks, risk clean drinking water by interrupting delivery of the chemicals treatment plants need, disrupt delivery of perishable goods and grain and fertilizer, drive fuel prices back up by thwarting ethanol shipments, and much more.
The White House projects that in just the first two weeks, as many as 765,000 people could lose their jobs as economic consequences cascade.
The House, in a strong bipartisan vote, passed a bill imposing the Biden agreement and overriding the strike, and Thursday the Senate followed suit. Such legislative intervention should not be taken lightly. On the House side, Democrats wary of undercutting the unions and upset that most rail workers get no paid sick time (they do have short-term disability, vacation and personal leave days) won passage of a second bill adding seven days of paid sick leave annually for workers covered under the agreement. Unfortunately, that bill failed in the Senate.
The perfect is not the enemy of the necessary. The overall compromise, backed by the railroads and most of the unions, would deliver 24% raises — the biggest boost in pay the workers have gotten in generations — and $5,000 bonuses retroactive to 2020, as well as an additional day of paid leave. It may not be perfect, but it’s far preferable to plunging the economy into grave peril. President Biden is right to pull the emergency brake and avert the strike.
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