Rail workers angry with Biden for not pushing for paid sick leave in contract. With a strike looming, President Biden called on Congress to pass legislation imposing a contract deal that four rail unions had rejected, citing its lack of paid sick days.

Some rail workers say Biden "turned his back on us" in deal to avert rail strike

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Farmers, manufacturers and retailers around the country are relieved this weekend now that there won't be a rail strike. President Biden has signed into law a measure that averts any strike. The bill imposes a five-year contract deal that his administration helped to broker. Who's not happy are some of the workers who had voted down that very deal because it did not include paid sick days. NPR's Andrea Hsu has more.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Matthew Weaver was hanging drywall at a rail yard in Lordstown, Ohio, on Wednesday when the House of Representatives passed a resolution giving rail workers seven days of paid sick leave...

MATTHEW WEAVER: I was more excited. I was, like, really optimistic that we were going to get some sick days.

HSU: ...Something his union had been holding out for since its members voted down the contract deal in October. But as the hours passed and the measure moved on to the Senate, where 60 votes were needed for passage, Weaver's doubts grew.

WEAVER: As I heard the news, I was like, ah, this is not going to happen.

HSU: And he was right. What Congress did pass and deliver to President Biden was a bill that simply imposed the agreement that eight rail unions had approved but four others had rejected, the one that gives workers a 24% raise over five years, a cap on health care premiums, and one additional personal day, but no paid sick days. It's exactly what Biden had asked Congress to do - to stick to the deal on the table, no modifications or delay, because the stakes were too high. Biden warned that there would be economic devastation and massive job losses should railroad workers strike.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Congress, I think, has to act to prevent it. It's not an easy call, but I think we have to do it.

REECE MURTAGH: It's really sad.

HSU: Reece Murtagh, a roadway mechanic in Richmond, Va., has thought all along that if anyone could secure paid sick days for rail workers, it would be this president, this administration.

MURTAGH: Who knows what's going to happen, you know, in the next election, who's in there. But this was, like, the dream team of pro-labor. You know, if it's not happening this time, then we're not going to get them (laughter).

HSU: At the bill signing at the White House yesterday, President Biden sought to counter that sense of defeat.

BIDEN: Look, I know this bill doesn't have paid sick leave that these rail workers and, frankly, every worker in America deserves. But that fight isn't over.

HSU: Murtagh is not convinced. What Biden did, he says, sets a precedent. The railroad saw that even the most labor-friendly of presidents was not willing to risk a strike.

MURTAGH: In future negotiations, the carriers are going to remember that and use it against us. And it's going to be even harder for us to negotiate a fair contract.

HSU: In a statement, the Association of American Railroads, the trade group representing the freight railroads, said, without a doubt, there is more to be done to further address our employees' work-life balance concerns. But the group also called the deal the most generous in history and says the wages and benefits maintain rail's place among the best jobs in the nation. Now, because this contract covers five years going back to 2020, rail workers will soon see a sizable payout - back raises and bonuses averaging $16,000. Matthew Weaver, the rail worker we heard from earlier, is expecting a wave of departures.

WEAVER: There'll definitely be railroad workers waiting for their back paycheck to come and then start looking for another career.

HSU: After all, he says, there are other jobs out there.

WEAVER: There's refinery jobs. There's trucking jobs. There's many other crafts out there that pay better, and they get the respect from their employer.

HSU: Something, he says, is lacking in railroad jobs these days. Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

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