Alaska Democrat Breaks From Biden’s Plan to Avoid Rail Strike: Not ‘Right’

Alaska Democratic Representative Mary Peltola broke from President Joe Biden over his plan to avoid a rail strike he warned could have a “crippling” effect on the U.S. economy.

Biden on Monday asked Congress to “immediately” adopt the tentative agreement between railroad workers and operators to avoid the work stoppage, set for December 9. His plan was met with scorn from organized labor, as railroad worker unions have denounced the deal for not offering them more sick leave. Rail operators have said workers can use vacation time when they become ill, but some companies require this time to be scheduled months in advance, unions have argued.

Biden’s plan would override the ratification procedures for the deal, which would raise wages and offer employees a $5,000 bonus. Congressional leaders have agreed to hold a vote on legislation intended to avoid the strike but have faced pushback from some Democrats with ties to organized labor.

Peltola—who represents Alaska’s at-large congressional district—said she would vote against the plan during an appearance on MSNBC. Her opposition comes just weeks after she narrowly won reelection in the traditionally Republican-leaning state.

Peltola breaks with Biden on rail deal
Representative Mary Peltola, an Alaska Democrat, speaks to supporters during an election watch party in Anchorage on November 8, 2022. Peltola broke with President Joe Biden after he called on Congress to ratify an agreement between railroad workers and operators to avoid a strike.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

She said she believes not providing adequate sick leave to railroad workers would be an “untenable situation,” pointing to myriad viruses including COVID-19, the flu and RSV, which continue to spread across the U.S.

“I just don’t think it’s right or fair to expect workers to go to work sick as a dog without being able to have a few days to recover,” Peltola said.

She also raised concerns about the economic impact of these workers not having enough sick days to recover from any illness. She said she would only vote in favor of the legislation if it provides these days, adding the issue is also about “the ability to have a sick day without the threat of being fired.”

“I think it could also cause catastrophic damage to the nation’s economy if we’re expecting a whole sector of employees to go to work sick,” she said.

Peltola defeated Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich during the 2022 midterm elections. Alaska uses ranked choice voting, and Peltola won the second round with 55 percent of the vote—equating to a 10-point victory in the state Biden lost by 10 points in 2020.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Andy Levin Among Other Democrats Pushing for Sick Leave

A handful of other Democrats have also signaled they could oppose any legislation that does not address rail workers’ sick leave.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York tweeted that Congress should only intervene to side with workers and “secure their demands in legislation.”

“Railroad workers grind themselves to the bone for this country as their labor produces billions for Wall St.,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “They demand the basic dignity of paid sick days. I stand with them.”

Representative Andy Levin, of Michigan, accused rail companies of “presenting America with a false choice” of a strike or the contract rejected by some labor unions.

“How about this: Congress can prevent a work stoppage by listening to the workers & adding a modest amount of paid sick leave to the deal,” he wrote.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday the House would vote on legislation to adopt the tentative agreement as negotiated, as well as a separate vote on whether to add seven days of sick leave to the deal.

The package, which seeks to avoid the strike while addressing sick leave, would also have to be passed by the Senate and signed by the president.

Biden said he was “reluctant” to override the process “as a proud pro-labor President” but weighed it against the economic damage a railroad worker strike would cause, as railroads are used to transport freight across the U.S.

“But in this case—where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families—I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal,” Biden said.

Newsweek has reached out to the White House for comment.

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