Senate votes to avert rail strike amid dire warnings
By KEVIN FREKING and JOSH FUNK, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate moved quickly Thursday to avert a rail strike that the Biden administration and business leaders warned would have had devastating consequences for the nation’s economy.
The Senate passed a bill to bind rail companies and workers to a proposed settlement that was reached between the rail companies and union leaders in September. That settlement had been rejected by some of the 12 unions involved, creating the possibility of a strike beginning Dec. 9.
The Senate vote was 80-15. It came one day after the House voted to impose the agreement. The measure now goes to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature.
“I’m very glad that the two sides got together to avoid a shutdown, which would have been devastating for the American people, to the American economy and so many workers across the country,” Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters.
Schumer spoke as Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg emphasized to Democratic senators that rail companies would begin shutting down operations well before a potential strike would begin. The administration wanted the bill on Biden’s desk by the weekend.
Shortly before Thursday’s votes, Biden — who had urged Congress to intervene earlier this week — defended the contract that four of the unions had rejected, noting the wage increases it contains.
“I negotiated a contract no one else could negotiate,” Biden said at a news briefing with French President Emmanuel Macron. “What was negotiated was so much better than anything they ever had.”
Critics say the contract that did not receive backing from enough union members lacked sufficient levels of paid leave for rail workers. Biden said he wants paid leave for “everybody” so that it wouldn’t have to be negotiated in employment contracts, but Republican lawmakers have blocked measures to require time off work for medical and family reasons. The U.S. president said that Congress should now impose the contract to avoid a strike that Biden said could cause 750,000 job losses and a recession.
Photo Credit: Billion Photos / Shutterstock
After decades of declining power and influence, organized labor in the U.S. is making a comeback.
The COVID-19 pandemic has set off a number of shifts in the labor market that have given workers more power. Labor participation rates fell sharply early in the pandemic and still have not recovered to pre-pandemic levels. The Great Resignation saw millions of workers leave their jobs in search of better pay or working conditions. With the labor market still tight, employers have struggled to recruit and retain employees.
In this context, workers have been organizing at rates not seen in decades. One of the most high-profile examples is the union drive at Starbucks stores across the U.S. over the last year. Around 250 Starbucks locations have voted to unionize since the first Starbucks union formed in Buffalo, NY late in 2021. Employees at other major companies have also attempted unionization, including retail and factory workers at Apple and Amazon. And the trend extends to white collar industries like tech, academia, and media, where unionization has historically been limited.
According to the National Labor Relations Board, 1,522 votes on unionization have taken place so far in 2022. This is the highest number of union elections since 2015 and an increase of more than 50% over 2021.
The recent uptick in unionization could begin to reverse a decades-long decline in union membership rates. The peak of union membership over the last 50 years was in 1979, when 24.1% of American workers were union members. That figure has since fallen by more than half, with only 10.3% of workers in a union as of 2021. In raw numbers, there are nearly 7 million fewer union members in the U.S. now than there were in the late 1970s.
Recent trends in unionization are significant to bother workers and employers. Unionization and collective bargaining materially affect the compensation and working conditions that workers experience, for better or for worse. In turn, these factors can affect employers’ ability to staff their businesses and the overhead costs they must pay to operate.
Compensation is one of the most notable differences between unionized and non-unionized workers, as unions are often able to negotiate for higher wages. And as unions’ influence has declined over time, so too has the gap in compensation between union and non-union employee wages. At the height of unionization in the late 1970s and early 1980s, union members made over 30% more per hour than their non-union counterparts. Today, union members continue to earn more than non-union workers, but the gap between the two is just 11%.
The new growth in union membership is unlikely to return the U.S. to historic levels of unionization, and union representation will continue to be stronger in some industries than others. Certain sectors of the economy have significantly higher rates of union membership than others, including transportation, utilities, public administration, and education. At the highest end, some industries have union membership rates greater than 50%.
The data used in this analysis is from Unionstats.com. Researchers at Smartest Dollar calculated the union membership rate for 247 industries, ranking them from highest to lowest. In the event of a tie, the industry with the greater union coverage rate was ranked higher.