Senate should not pick sides in the railway dispute
President Biden wants the Senate to quickly approve legislation that would avert a national strike among railway workers in early December. But senators should be wary about enforcing a deal that both management and labor have not agreed to.
Congress cannot typically force a contract on a specific set of workers and companies, but the railway industry is different from most sectors in that it can hold the rest of the economy hostage. That’s why lawmakers passed the Railway Labor Act in 1926, which allowed Congress to impose binding contracts on unionized railways.
But just because Congress can do this doesn’t mean it should. Imagine the mischief that could take place with the government bending discrete economic actors to its will. One party, for example, could empower management or unions to the detriment of their political opponents.
That means government should use its power sparingly, employing it only when negotiations are clearly at a standstill and the secondary economic effects are too great to ignore. Neither element of that test currently exists.
Labor negotiations can be frustrating to observe, but it’s often the case that both sides use deadlines to force the other to blink. It’s not at all uncommon for the most serious negotiations to occur on the cusp of a strike deadline or shortly after one is implemented. That’s what happened last spring in Major League Baseball. It took an owner-imposed lockout to force both sides to forge a compromise – one that neither side liked but that both could live with.
The strike deadline in this case, Dec. 9, is still more than a week away. That might not seem like a lot of time to people unfamiliar with these standoffs, but it’s an eternity in labor negotiations. Congress getting involved would mean the government is effectively taking sides in the dispute, which would surely anger the side that perceives itself the loser. It would also poison the well for the implementation of that contract and for negotiations in future years.
In the case of the railway negotiations, unions refused to ratify a draft agreement brokered in September by the White House because it did not include guaranteed sick days for workers, which they desperately wanted. That’s why the House passed a bill this week that would modify the September agreement to increase the number of sick days for each worker from one to seven. That might mollify the unions, but it would likely enrage management, which agreed to a massive 24 percent pay hike in the prior deal. The companies likely cannot afford those terms with so many sick days tacked on. Forcing management to accept the amendment would simply change the aggrieved party, not solve the dispute.
That’s why the Senate shouldn’t pass the legislation as is. Instead, it should push the two sides to compromise further. The threat that Congress is willing to impose a contract that could upset either side should be enough to push them to make the best offers before the strike deadline.
The Senate should also use its power to better inform itself of both sides’ positions. What can management truly afford? What does labor really need? What trade-offs might the two sides be able to make to reach the median that both can live with during the contract’s life span? Those are the type of questions senators should be asking.