President Joe Biden defended the September deal he negotiated between railroads and their employees during a Thursday press conference, saying it was “a contract no one else could negotiate.”
Biden and several Cabinet members held a public celebration in the Rose Garden on Sept. 15, when an initial deal was reached between the two parties, but four rail workers unions have since rejected it, leaving the president dependent on Congress to avert a crushing workers strike ahead of the holidays.
“Do the freight rail workers deserve more than one day of paid sick leave, like millions of Americans have?” NPR’s Tamara Keith asked Biden during a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron. “And if so, why didn’t you negotiate for that when you were helping to negotiate that contract that you now want Congress to impose?”
Paid sick leave has emerged as a sticking point for the unions that rejected the deal, though the workers do receive paid vacation, personal leave days, and short-term disability.
Biden appeared to be annoyed by the question.
“I love you guys,” he responded, smiling through gritted teeth. “I negotiated a contract no one else could negotiate. The only thing that was left out was whether or not there was paid leave. You know I’ve been trying to get paid leave, not just for rail workers, but for everybody.”
The president blamed Republicans for the lack of paid sick leave in the contracts.
“We’re one of the few nations in the world that don’t have paid leave for our workers,” Biden said. “What I’ve made fairly clear is, what was negotiated was so much better than anything they ever had.”
French law mandates a minimum of five weeks of vacation each year, whereas there is no mandatory minimum paid vacation in the United States.
House lawmakers voted for the rail agreement 290-137 on Wednesday but were more divided on a measure providing seven days of paid sick leave. That provision narrowly passed 221-207. Only three Republicans voted for the provision, spelling trouble for its fate in the Senate.
The House vote puts the country one step closer to avoiding a rail strike, which would begin Dec. 9, by voting to accept the Biden-negotiated deal. The bill now goes to the Senate, where it will likely receive a vote before the weekend.
Congress has the power to avert the strike in this situation because rail strikes are governed by the Railway Labor Act of 1926 instead of the National Labor Relations Act. Congress has the authority to intervene and force the unions to accept the agreement’s terms.
Despite pushing for Congress to preserve the deal that does not include paid sick days, Biden said he would push for more paid leave in the future.
“That doesn’t mean … I’m going to back off of paid leave,” he said. “I’ve made it really clear. I’m going to continue to fight for paid leave for not only rail workers but for all American workers. I imagine it may surprise some of our European friends that there’s no paid leave in the United States of America.”